Monday, May 14, 2007
"Functional English Grammar: an introduction for second language teachers" Graham Lock
Reading this book has induced in me a kind of giddy nausea. Here’s why:
“Note also that the speech act exclamation is also often realized by a clause with no Subject, Finite, or Predicator (technically a minor clause) as in the following.
(28) What a mess!
(29) How stupid!
Such clauses cannot be analyzed for mood at all.”
This little extract chosen at random reveals the underlying assumptions behind this book: a) grammar is a discrete, unified conceptual system onto which all languages can be mapped; b) it is useful and correct to analyse bits of language in terms of their single word units Subject, Predicate etc; c) analyzing grammar consists mainly of sticking labels on bits of language: exclamation; d) the close analysis of grammar in the way put forward by this book is useful for language learners.
Hence the nausea.
For a book which purports to "be intended for teachers rather than linguists or text analysts", Lock does a truly dreadful job of clarifying grammar for those involved in the pedagogical process. His book covers much of the same old ground in the same old way as other descriptive grammarians, and it is hard to see why his understanding and presentation of grammar merits the title 'functional', or why we needed this book at all. However, dear reader, all is not lost, for the book has brought into articulation my own thoughts on the answers to three questions: What is grammar? What is it for? Who needs to study it? (Normally I despise rhetorical questions in writing as being the mark of a lazy intellect, but as Lock has allowed himself so many errors of analysis in his exposition of English grammar, and so many errors of judgement in the pitching of his tone and content to his audience, that I have decided to allow myself a little leeway in my review of his book). It might be useful to start by answering in the negative.
What is grammar?
Grammar is not a discrete, unified conceptual system –like a Platonic form- onto which all languages can be mapped. It is rather the underlying structure of each language and each language has its own grammatical concepts. The only grammatical concept which I suspect has any real transferability across all human languages is the noun/verb distinction (I name the object I see, I name the action I do). Other concepts such as adjective, predicate, clause, tense and aspect etc may not exist for all other languages. Chinese, for example, has no linking verbs, no tenses and no articles. Any attempt to impose these so-called universal grammatical constructs onto all languages, or to map divers languages onto one grammatical system ultimately derived from the Latin language is an act of grammatical imperialism. Ahem.
What is grammar for?
Grammar is not for deciding what is correct or not correct. It is not for passing tests and getting good grades. It is not a system of rules, but a system of laws, as in the laws of physics, or the law of gravity, or the second law of thermodynamics.
Grammar is for clarifying meaning. Grammar is meaning. ‘I go swimming in the afternoon: I went swimming in the afternoon’. The selection of tense allows both sender and receiver of the message to understand whether the action was carried out on a particular afternoon, or on every afternoon as a matter of routine. Of course, on a deeper level the grammatical categories that underlie each language give fascinating glimpses into the profoundly foreign ways that other cultures see the world. (c.f. Lakoff & Johnson).
Who needs to study grammar?
Native speakers do not need to study grammar. They already know it. It already informs and creates the structure of their mind, the way they communicate with themselves. Writers do not need to study it. Most writers can manipulate language on an instinctual basis for certain effects. Shakespeare went to grammar school certainly, but he did not study English grammar. Dickens did not go to school for very long or very often. He also did not study English grammar. If the two greatest verbal artists in the language did not study grammar, why should other writers bother with it? Children do not need to study it beyond the mere fixing on of labels: verb noun adjective adverb sentence clause, and perhaps other labels of other parts of speech. Why? Because it will help them to learn other languages. In fact, the only people who need to study grammar, are grammarians, and language learners, and grammarians only need to study it so that they can produce grammars for language learners!
So if the only people who need to study grammar are those people learning and teaching languages, then why is it that all grammars fail so dreadfully in their aim of clarifying how a language works for a person learning or teaching it? (Another rhetorical question, note how I indulge myself.)
The answer is the absence of understanding of the pedagogical process. There is lacking a pedagogical grammar; in other words, a way of describing the laws of creating meaning in a foreign language which can lead the learner to accurate and fluent production of that language. Grammar should be a simplification. Not a dumbing down, but a stripping down to the bare essentials. Grammar is a tool for learning language. Any tool must be simple enough to effectively perform the task it was designed for. The problem with most grammars is that the tool is so complex, that all attention is focussed on learning how to use the tool, rather than what to use it for. Lock’s functional grammar is no exception.
Bearing in mind that (probably) 95% of English teachers in the world are non-native speakers, and that the 2% of native speakers who decide to become EFL teachers are only doing it until something better comes along, Lock is hopelessly, madly, burningly naïve if he thinks teachers are going to be able to understand much less be able to use in the classroom descriptions of the language such as he puts forward:
"…clauses like 63 through 65 do not simply assign an Attribute to a Carrier. They identify one participant by equating it with another participant. This is why they are called identifying process clauses. And if participant A equals participant B, then of course participant B also equals participant A. "
(Got that, class?)
While the applied linguist in me (perversely perhaps) enjoys this kind of stuff, the pedagogue in me is literally sickened by it.