Thursday, July 7, 2011

Bring low standards to English language teaching

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jul/05/teaching-english-fractal-grammar-claypole

"Bring chaos theory to English language teaching

By relying on grammar rules in class, learners are in danger of becoming detached from the dynamism of spoken language"

Sigh, this old relativist bunkum again, re-packaged in pseudo-scientific drivel by making "non-sequitious" references to fractals.

The rules of grammar may be flexible and may appear elusive at the fringes, but they are certainly not "chaotic"; there is a huge difference between "playing with language" within the confines of its complex but flexible "rules" (e.g. the "does my broadband look big in this" example), and simply making grammatical errors that reflect errors in both thinking and elementary sentence construction (e.g. dangling modifiers). Pretty much by definition it is children that do not know the difference, and you first need to learn and master the fundamental grammatical rules (that are basically a reflection of your ability to think clearly in a language) before you can start "playing around" in a meaningful way. If you use, say, dangling modifiers in your speech or writing, it is not because you are being 'creative' within the 'flexible rules of language' - it is because you are simply making an error in thinking.

As an analogy, this is the difference between a Beethoven who "plays around" and comes up with something new and masterful on the piano, versus banging piano keys at random as a child would do. It might be true that the child is being "creative" and musically "flexible" in the strictest sense, but it's also entirely useless. The vast majority of grammatical errors are the literary equivalent of the latter.

An adherence to strict grammatical rules in language teaching has never precluded proper masterful "flexible" creativity nor prevented it from occurring in language use, it will happen anyway, and nor has it even precluded good teachers from allowing it when applied correctly by the best students --- therefore there isn't even a "problem" to solve here.

Where is the evidence of the consequences of this alleged "danger"? On the contrary, it seems to me the greatest problems with language education are not that our graduates haven't been taught to use grammar "flexibly" enough, rather, they use it far too "flexibly" (in the "banging keys on the piano" sense).

At least the author appears to be focusing on teaching of English as a foreign language (and not necessarily destroying the education of our children) but that strikes me as comparably disastrous. If her poor victims keep making grammatical errors it is not going to count in their favor in any sense, not on the job, not when communicating with first language speakers, and not on integrating into English communities. It's hard enough getting to grips (and not making embarrassing mistakes) with any second language even when you try use it "correctly"; it won't help you gain confidence if first language speakers find your "creative" and "flexible" grammar (and unintended meanings) to be something of a joke.

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