Friday, April 23, 2010

Sucking the fun out of language

Last week a friend (thanks, Bob) sent me this link to an April 19 New York Times interview with the physicist Sean Carroll, whose new book From Eternity to Here explores the physics of time. I found his comments on time interesting; more about that later, perhaps. What I want to focus on first is his complaint about the unpopularity of physics:
Whenever you say you’re a physicist, there’s a certain fraction of people who immediately go, “Oh, I hated physics in high school.” That’s because of the terrible influence of high school physics. Because of it, most people think physics is all about inclined planes and force-vector diagrams. One of the tragedies of our educational system is that we’ve taken this incredibly interesting subject — how the universe works — and made it boring.
My impression, after teaching linguistics for over twenty years, is that this pretty much applies to the study of language as well. People spend years in the public education system having the fun and wonder of language sucked out of them by "language arts," "English," and "English composition" teachers. These teachers do this by focusing on things that really have little to do with language, such as spelling, punctuation, "correct" grammar, and so on. The result is that when they arrive at college, students have been so thoroughly mystified (in the Marxist sense) about the nature of language that they have real problems approaching the subject from the perspective of scientific linguistics.

Here are a few ways that this mystification manifests itself:
  • Confusion of language with writing. We live in a hyperliterate society. So, for most of their school careers, what students learn about "language" is really about the writing system. They carry this training into linguistics by insisting on referring to symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), such as [p] and [a], as "letters." This leads them to say that the "first letter" in the English word pot ([pʰɑt] in IPA)  is aspirated. For some, taking points off never helps.
  • Confusion about parts of speech. The definite and indefinite determiners (the, a) are "adjectives"; the my in my homework is a "possessive adjective" (actually, it's also a determiner); etc.
  • Confusion of grammar with social rules. The classic example here is, of course, the "don't use double negatives" rule, which is a rule about social acceptability, like not farting in public, and has absolutely nothing to do with English grammar as constructed by linguists.
  • Confusion about the meaning of linguistic diversity. Language arts programs focus on creating unity out of the natural diversity of human language by molding students into producers of some idealized, homogenized version of "standard" English. Instead of seeing diversity as one aspect of human creativity, students come to believe that non-standard usage results from lack of education, mental deficiency, laziness, etc.
These examples of mystification, and others, show up every semester in my linguistics classes. What does it mean? Apparently, there is little or no change, no progress toward enlightenment, in the way children are taught about the nature of language in the K-12 system.

One might conclude that the function of language arts education (perhaps most education) is the assembly-line production of interchangeable, unimaginative, and obedient carbon units, prepared to serve a predatory capitalist system that works best when its victims think that important elements of their world, like language, cannot be investigated and interpreted except by the standards of the Masters.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of K-12 education in public schools. I generally teach college freshman (varying levels of composition), and I've seen the absolute lack of joy or interest they all have toward their education and particularly toward their use of language in academia. It is an assembly-line. My theory is that in our society, we place value on "the product" (rather than the process), so we are always looking for something tangible and quantifiable as the end result. The problem, of course, is that education doesn't always yield something we can measure. Those in positions of power don't recognize this, so education is broken down into individual subjects, and students are evaluated by a scale: Is this product worthy of sale? He gets an A. This one is defected? He fails. Now, I'm generalizing; some students are lucky or have a lot of support outside of school to enrich their education, but those that go to my community college? Not so much.

    My teaching philosophy is to help empower students through the use of writing (or language). I try to show them that academic writing is appropriate in one setting, whereas the other languages they use in life are appropriate in those settings. Still, students insist on calling academic language "formal," and the language they use with friends or family "informal," "casual," or "slang."

  2. I do not have any data about how many teachers teach in the way you suggest. The ones I generally speak to in my community college English department do not seem to focus on grammar and spelling (though horrifically spelled and gramamtically chaotic essays would seldom earn high grades).

    Instead we tend to focus on critical thinking skills, honest, solid research, and organizing the argument to make a clear point. Most teachers have some assignments dealing with the playfulness and creativity of language, and some (myself included) talk about language-as-politics.

    What we do get is intense pressure from the social sciences (anth, his, soc, psych) and hard-sciences departments about how poorly we seem to be teaching our students to write a basic sentence. I guess academic society will have to come to some guidelines for us 'language arts' teachers because we get conflicting demands.

  3. Domestic Kate: Thanks for the comments.

    Wade: I take your points, and I think you, in particular, are an exception to the general pattern I think I see. However, you're teaching with college students so you're dealing with people who've already passed thru K-12. Anyway, lots to think about.


Comments and feedback are welcome, as long as they conform to normal standards of civility and decency. I will delete comments that do not meet these standards.