Monday, May 13, 2013

Grammar and Gove

It probably comes as no surprise to regular readers that this blog is not a fan of Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, but his pronouncements last week were particularly grim, even by his own standards. And, while this blog is primarily concerned with A level English Language and not politics, we all know that arguments about the English language  - as Henry Hitchings, author of The Language Wars, puts it in his interview with emagazine - are often really about "people’s attitudes to – among other things – class, race, money and politics".

A quick look at today's BBC News Magazine article about attitudes to grammar and punctuation (a really nice intro to the topic if you're still looking for a way into this for the ENGA3 exam) helps illustrate this very point.

In a speech last week, Gove attacked a number of teaching approaches, teachers and journalists with an interest in education, while once again trying to fly the flag for "correct grammar". He also had a go at the Mr. Men. It's interesting that he referred to grammar in his speech, as Year Six pupils are doing their National Curriculum Tests this week , and a new grammar test has been introduced as part of this: something that Gove is keen to trumpet as a new, 'rigorous' approach to the teaching of English.

Now, you might expect an Education Secretary to have a decent grasp of what grammar is and how it can be taught, but Gove clearly doesn't. He certainly has some knowledge of it, but it's a very narrow, blinkered view, and one that doesn't really match the reality of how language is actually used.

In his speech , Gove states the following:

We are introducing a basic test of competence in spelling, punctuation and grammar at the end of primary school.
But again the unions - and their allies - have objected to the suggestion that eleven year-olds should be able to spell words in Standard English, use full stops and commas with confidence or deploy adverbs appropriately.
One of the critics - Michael Rosen - attacked the proposed assessment in his column, “Letter from a Curious Parent”, in the Guardian.
Mr Rosen criticised the test on the basis that there was no such thing as correct grammar, but if you were perverse enough to want to ensure children knew how to use Standard English you could of course devise some form of assessment. However, such a test was only ever accessible to a minority because when a comparable test of grammatical knowledge existed in the past, only a minority of students passed that. So this new test was clearly a fiendish exercise to brand hundreds of thousands of children as failures so that they were reconciled to a future of supine wage slavery.
I could argue that nothing is more likely to condemn any young person to limited employment opportunities - or indeed joblessness - than illiteracy. I could point out that the newspaper Mr Rosen writes for has a style guide, a team of trained sub-editors and a revise sub-editor as well as a night editor and a backbench of assistant night editors to ensure that what appears under his - and everyone else's - byline is correct English. I could observe that it was a funny form of progressive thinking that held that the knowledge which elites have used to communicate with confidence and authority over the years - and which they pay to ensure their children can master - should be denied to the majority of children.
To Gove it appears simple: there is a correct form of English and that is what young people should be taught. End of.

Now, I don't actually think that Gove believes this; he's a clever man and is no doubt aware that language can change, that the "rules" we have often followed in the past haven't really been rules, as such, but preferences for particular styles. As Henry Hitchings points out so convincingly in The Language Wars and Robert Lane Greene so clearly in You Are What You Speak, these preferences are often rather misguided, relying on models of grammar (for example, Latin) that don't really match the flexibility and fluidity of English in its various forms. And clearly, grammar consists of different structures, some of which might be seen as non-standard when compared to formal, written English, when it is used in a spoken form or online.

No, I think Gove is aware of all this but chooses to present the argument in such a simplified, polarised and partial way because it suits his political agenda. He wants to help educate young people; the lefties and linguists don't care about that. It can't be a coincidence either that he's currently positioning himself as David Cameron's heir apparent to a sympathetic audience on the right-wing of the Conservative Party who are disaffected enough to vote UKIP.

As the other (better) Cameron (Deborah) explains in Verbal Hygiene (1995), grammar is a useful touchstone because it can be made " symbolize various things for its conservative proponents: a commitment to traditional values as a basis for social order, to ‘standards’ and ‘discipline’ in the classroom, to moral certainties rather than moral relativism and to cultural homogeneity rather than pluralism. Grammar was able to signify all these things because of its strong metaphorical association with order, tradition, authority, hierarchy and rules". Last week grammar and "dumbed-down" teaching, this week Europe, next week immigration?

If this is where Gove is coming from , then fair play to him. In studying Language Discourses for ENGA3, if we haven't discovered that different people construct their own discourses around language for their own reasons and with their own agendas, then we haven't really discovered very much at all. But what we've also learnt along the way is that we can analyse the arguments and language used to present them, to identify the positions being adopted and take them to task, if necessary. And what's more, we can use grammar to do that analysis.

Gove's arguments fit into a long line of prescriptivist thinking that we've seen characterised in Jean Aitchison's models from The Language Web, in Simon Heffer's belief that grammar is logic and in Lindsay Johns' assertions that "ghetto grammar" is destined to destroy the employment prospects of young people. These arguments can be quite convincing: who doesn't want young people to develop clear communication? Crazy people and communists, obviously. But is it really that simple?

In response to Gove's attack, Michael Rosen - one of those specifically singled out and named in Gove's speech - argued in a piece for Saturday's Guardian that Gove had got it wrong on grammar. While part of Rosen's objection is philosophical and stems from a socialist, humanist position, he's also a writer and educator, and not exactly a slouch when it comes to grammar.

 I can agree with some of Rosen's points on a gut level: "A problem that arises from talking about "correct grammar" is that it suggests that all other ways of speaking or writing are incorrect. This consigns the majority to being in error. Gove might be happy with that way of viewing humanity, but I'm not". However, I also need a bit more than gut feeling to go on.

A more convincing argument, to my mind at least, appears at the start of his article:
All language has grammar, otherwise it wouldn't be language. Grammar is what gives words sense. We produce language in strings of words, and the means by which they stick together and make sense is grammar. This applies to all language, all dialects – not one particular way of speaking and writing. So grammar is not a matter of being correct or not. It's a way of describing how all language works. All linguists believe there is grammar, but linguists do not all agree on grammatical terms or categories. Pretending that there is only one correct way to describe language is confusing and untrue.
This is it, in a nutshell. Grammar tests that judge answers as right or wrong, without giving proper consideration to context and usage, are not really going to help anyone develop their language skills. And if you don't want to take my word for this, then just ask Debra Myhill, one of the advisers to the government on the new test. When interviewed by the TES she said "The grammar test is totally decontextualised; it just asks children to do particular things, such as identifying a noun ... But 50 years of research has consistently shown that there is no relationship between doing that kind of work and what pupils do in their writing".

Grammar is a huge part of what we do in A level English Language, and as a grammar nerd, I also think it should be part of what we teach at Key Stages 2-4 as part of a wider English curriculum. But, unlike Gove, I don't agree that there's such a thing as a single "correct" grammar that we should teach, that there's a right or a wrong answer to every question. I think it's essential that we develop an understanding of how language works and tools to describe its use, its development and its variety, just not in the way that Michael Gove reductively claims that we can.

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