David Rickert

Watching Our Language

My mother-in-law is a stickler about thank you notes. For one thing, you have to send them within two weeks of when you received the gift, and an email doesn’t count. I tend to agree with her. If people take the time to buy a gift for you, a thank you note shouldn’t be regarded as too much trouble.

However, if done properly, thank you notes require some thought, and you have to obey certain conventions. You have to thank the giver specifically for the gift and tell them what you intend to do with it. You have to close with some sort of salutation. All of this is especially troublesome when you write in pen like I do (pencil seems too informal.)

I can’t help but think about how mastering conventions applies to the teaching of grammar, a discipling that is all about guidelines and rules. Much of my English education classes were taught by instructors with a background in applied linguistics, a discipline which is descriptive (concerned with what people actually do with language) rather than prescriptive (concerned with what people ought to do with language.) From an applied linguistics standpoint, there is no such thing as speaking or writing incorrectly. There is no standard English. No one has a monopoly of how people should talk.

However, this isn’t a license to do whatever you want, because certain contexts require their own “grammar” and “conventions.” The ability to switch your language to suit the occasion is called code switching. We know intuitively that we talk differently in different contexts, just as I talk differently to my students than I do my adult friends. Also, we might use different language with our friends if we were at a bar watching a football game than we would with those same friends at church, for example. Certain topics and words are appropriate in one situation but not the other.

To use an extreme example that many people feel is the bane of good grammar, let’s consider texting. As much as some people think that texting is ruining the way that people write (it isn’t), there are rules to obey in that realm as well. If someone sends you a funny text and you text back “laugh out loud” or “rolling on the floor laughing” instead of the standard abbreviations, you have failed to master the “grammar” that people use when they write in that environment.

With this in mind, what we often see as errors in grammar with our students are a failure to code switch. A good example is a research paper, which is a fairly sophisticated piece of writing that has many restrictions. A research paper has to read a certain way, and a student needs to be able to master that as a genre. However, different rules apply when writing a personal narrative: it’s a less restrictive genre that allows the writer more liberties in approaching the topic. If you write a research paper like a personal narrative you aren’t adopting the appropriate academic tone; likewise, if you write a personal narrative like a research paper you’re likely to put your reader to sleep. There are several genres of writing that we expect students to work in, and what we are really teaching kids when we teach each genre is the ability to code switch – mastering the conventions that you need to know for that particular writing event.

It’s not a stretch then to figure out that it does no good to criticize the way that students write and talk if it is presented in way that suggests that the way they talk and write is somehow inferior to what we expect from them in writing and speaking in school. Here’s the deal: kids write and talk based on their social environments. They do it to fit in, and they would much rather fit in with their friends than with you. And they will always find more value writing texts and tweets and status updates than they will papers. We won’t get anywhere criticizing those environments for somehow being a less authentic or valid way to use language than what they do in class.

So what we can do is approach it not from a position of judgment but of one from grace: “here is what you need to do with this type of writing.” No one writes resumes for fun, but it is a skill that every student will need to master. Same thing with persuasive papers. We need to show them the grammar and conventions that they need to succeed with that particular task while honoring who they are. Because the bottom line is no one writes like they talk, no one talks like they write, and any form of writing is going to be an artificial form of communication. Some societies have no written language and they seem to get along fine (and their kids don’t complain about research papers.) Let’s give them the tools they need to succeed in their various tasks (including thank you notes for their future in-laws).

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This entry was posted on January 14, 2013 by in education and tagged .
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