The other day we talked about the power of language and how poetry helps us to express our thoughts and understand the thoughts of others. Today, let’s continue the power-of -language theme with a simple argument for learning grammar.
I know, I know. English teachers have The Grammar Battle just as math teachers have The Algebra Battle, social studies teachers have The Chronology Battle, and science teachers have The Dissection Battle.
“Why do we have to know this?” is the common refrain we all hear.
I’ll let my math, social studies, and science colleagues tackle their disciplines, but I’ll take a crack at the grammar question. It’s one I hear all the time from students, sometimes in writing. (“This is to difacult. I don’t no why your teaching us this. I will nevry every need this. Tell students to lern this on there one if they want two.”)
Let’s agree, shall we, that when we write and speak clearly, precisely, and interestingly, people will not only pay attention to our words, they’ll be interested in them and they’ll understand our meaning. That’s the whole purpose of communication, right?
- We all know grammar. The human brain is a miracle. We’re born with the neurological ability to learn language. We spend our first couple of years listening to others speak, picking up our language’s structures, its rhythms, its sounds, its patterns. Eventually we try to speak it ourselves, first with a few simple words, then stringing them together. It really is remarkable. Everyone knows grammar.
- But we don’t know how to speak about grammar. This is less important than innately knowing grammar, but when we want to communicate formally – in writing, say, or when proposing a toast at a wedding, interviewing for a good job, participating in class, or speaking at a community meeting – we should know how to describe our words.
- Children learn by listening. Kids learn English (and any other language) by listening to the adults in their world. If we want our kids to have an advantage in school and later, it’s important that they hear relatively good grammar at home. This doesn’t mean formal speech all the time, of course. But it does mean giving them the ability to glide between informal and formal language, depending on the circumstances. “Way cool!” at home. “That book made me think,” in class.
- Children emulate us. Don’t blame the child for saying, “I seen it my own self,” when that’s what he’s heard all his life. Same for “Me and Joe are going out,” or “Uncle Hans gave Gretel and I some toys.” We want them to be ready for the world, to make a good impression, right? Why not give them the skills, knowledge, and tools to do so?
- Be good role models. Parents and teachers, coaches and scout leaders, all the significant adults in kids’ lives have a responsibility to prepare our kids for the best life can offer them. Just as there are times when we want them to dress up a little – for church, for a special occasion, for a holiday party with family – so, too, we want them to speak a little nicer at times. Slang and informality are fine much of the time, but we want them to know when to “dress up” their language when it’s appropriate. We teach them “please” and “thank you,” don’t we?
- No, it’s not snobby. Calling someone a snob because she knows how to speak and write properly in the right circumstances is like calling a gifted athlete a “hot dog” when she’s playing all-out in a championship game. Calling her a hot dog when she’s casually hanging out with less talented friends and still playing all-out is another matter. Same with the formal-speaking grammar freak hanging out with friends and correcting them. Yes, that’s snobby. And annoying.
- Refresh your grammar knowledge. Just as you refresh your long division rules when your kid comes home with homework skills you’ve long-since forgotten, do the same with simple grammar. Be careful you’re not giving your kids habits that will hold them back in school and career.
- Relax. Grammar doesn’t have to be scary. You know pretty much what’s correct and what ain’t. Insist that your kids learn standard English in school, speak it as well as you can at home, and encourage them to speak it, too. Don’t correct every little error, but if you see a pesky pattern focus on that. “Me and Jim’s playing video games now, Mom,” is a good place to start. When he’s fixed that, move on to another one.
- Yes, we all make mistakes. All the more reason to relax. The “winners,” though are the ones who recognize when they’ve made a mistake.
- Laugh. Some grammar mistakes are funny. Even when you don’t know the broken rule, you can be sure a sentence is wrong if the meaning is awkward or hilarious. “Take off lid and push up bottom,” from a stick deodorant. “It takes many ingredients to make our hamburgers so tasty, but the secret ingredient is our people.” Yuck. “Please remove all your clothes when the light goes out” at a Laundromat. From the Internet: “Wanted: a room by two gentlemen thirty feet long and twenty feet wide.” Some big guys! Last one, and my favorite: “I met a man with one arm named Bob.”