2.4 What do we know about language?
One aspect of language that illustrates the division between school and non-school language is grammar. Many people lack confidence in this subject, so we would like you now to reflect on what this term means to you.
Activity 5: Grammar
Note down your responses to the following questions:
How much grammar did you learn at school?
In your view, how has your knowledge about grammar helped you in your work with children?
Sum up, in one sentence, your own definition of the word ‘grammar’. Then write down three or four words that sum up how you feel about the subject of grammar.
Generally speaking, grammar does not appear to be a popular subject. One student on an Open University early years course reported that she had learnt to see grammar as ‘complicated, confusing, difficult to learn rules (and exceptions to them!)’. Maybe grammar was unfashionable when you were at school, so you were not taught anything; or perhaps you sat through grammar lessons and still feel none the wiser. You may feel that whatever knowledge of grammar you have has little bearing on your everyday life. Of course, you are thinking about grammar as a school subject (as we asked you to), but there is another way of looking at grammar.
Activity 6: Real grammar
Note down your responses to the question (in italics) after each of the following sentences:
Bill hit Ben.
Who was hurt? How do you know?
Ben's dirty shoes did not impress.
What state were Ben's shoes in? How do you know?
Ben's shoes ended up as they had started, dirty.
What state were Ben's shoes in? How do you know?
The first part of each question is easy. Ben got hurt, because it was Bill who did the hitting. How do you know? The sentence grammar – the order that the words are in – tells you. Putting it (very) roughly, English has a rule which says that, in a sentence like this, the first named person performs the action, the second word is the action and the third word shows the ‘victim’ of the action. In the same way that we know the ‘1’ in ‘156’ means ‘one hundred’ because of its position in the number, so we know that Ben is the ‘doer’ of an action by the position of his name in the sentence.
In the second sentence, we know that Ben's shoes are dirty because of the order of words. A word like ‘dirty’ regularly applies to the word that follows it. The grammar also tells us that the shoes belong to Ben.
You might think that both these examples depend on common sense rather than grammar: it's just the order that the ideas ‘naturally’ come in. But if you are a speaker of a different language, Welsh perhaps, the ideas may come in a different order. In Welsh, ‘Bill hit Ben’ would be Fe darodd Bill Ben (‘hit Bill Ben’), and ‘Ben's dirty shoes’ would be sgidiau brwnt Ben (‘shoes dirty Ben’).
From the first two examples, you might think that words relate to each other because they stand next to each other. However, in the third example, we can easily spot that the shoes are the dirty objects, even though the words are at opposite ends of the sentence.
The danger with talking about grammar is that it is possible to get into deep water very quickly. It is not intended that you get involved in anything complex here. The important point to grasp is that in using language one is able, without effort and without being aware of it, to do some very complicated things.
In the comment to Activity 6, we used the word ‘rule’, and, in the context of grammar, this needs some explanation. You are probably familiar with the idea that rules of grammar tell you what you should or should not write or say. This is not the kind of rule that is being talked about here: indeed, pattern might be a better word to describe what we mean.
The following sentences follow the same pattern as ‘Bill hit Ben’, so we can understand them in the same way:
Jane / hates / strawberries.
Bill / is eating / strawberries.
Strawberries / contain / vitamin C.
We don't need anyone to tell us that we should put the words in this order or understand them in the way we do. Mentally, we all have some knowledge (of rules or patterns) that enables us to make sense of sentences. In fact, most of the rules that we understand without effort are far more complicated than the rules that we are told we should use. One student's definition of grammar as ‘correctly presenting the written and spoken English language’ is a view of schooled grammar. The knowledge that allows us to use language appropriately is a different type of grammar and one that we have all mastered. The next activity develops further the idea that there are different types of grammar.
Activity 7: Types of grammar
Read ‘Grammar: the rules of language’ from Primary English by Ian Eyres;.
Click on the link below to open Grammar: the rules of language by Ian Eyres.
When you have finished reading this section, write a few words to explain:
what is meant by implicit and explicit language knowledge;
your reaction to the notion of correctness that is being proposed here.
Besides producing and understanding language, what else does your knowledge of language enable you to do?
Implicit and explicit language knowledge are quite close in meaning to schooled and non-schooled grammar. As speakers, we all have implicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge enables us to talk about language – for example, to explain why a sentence ‘sounds wrong’. You were possibly surprised that not all forms of grammar are concerned about ‘correctness’: this is a question we will return to later in the course.
You have spent some time now looking at the way in which English puts words together. The next Activity explores some other aspects of language. Again the intention is to show how complex language is, so do not spend too long getting to grips with all the details.
Activity 8: Your language knowledge
Complete the attached activity from Primary English by Ian Eyres. When you have completed your list, read the three numbered paragraphs in the ‘Reflection’. What different knowledge would you need to understand this text if it were spoken rather than written?
Click on the link below to open Primary English by Ian Eyres.
The ‘Reflection’ concentrates on elements of language such as words and letters which are easy to think of as the ‘building blocks’ that texts are made up of. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that a speaker or writer develops meaning from a whole text and chooses his or her language accordingly.
We based this activity on a written text because we felt that it would be easier to analyse than an audio or video recording. This does have the disadvantage of excluding important features such as how a speaker uses his or her voice or the way that words are made up of speech sounds. In fact it may be tempting to make the mistake of thinking that, because these things are not written down, they are less important or not really part of language proper. Furthermore, if we stick to written texts, because the person reading the text is silent we run the risk of forgetting that most oral language involves more than one person.