Thursday, August 05, 2010

English as a first language

I admit it. I hated English in school. Well, perhaps hate is too strong a word. It was more that there were other subjects that i preferred. I don't hate chocolate ice cream. I simply prefer vanilla. But i was talking to someone who majored in English in college the other day, and it got me thinking.

So why was English less than my favorite subject? It's probably the way grammar and spelling are taught. The way grammar is often taught is to explain the rules of grammar, with heavy emphasis on this is a noun and all sentences have at least a noun and a verb. It largely ignores the simple fact that English has no rules at all that aren't regularly broken. By the time the average American child is ten years old, they've learned 10,000 words of vocabulary, but also 10,000 rules of grammar. This is as large a vocabulary as adults master for most other languages. And really, come on. A rule for every word is pretty much the same as an exception for every rule. That's like saying that there are no rules at all. And American children don't learn these things by having to remember either the rules or the names of the rules. They do it by usage. And usage is how the language is defined. Really. Dictionaries are written by examining published material. That's why congress critters and others can routinely verb words. (The word verb is, of course, a noun). And, of course, learning just exactly what words are nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, and so on, and what, exactly, the rules are for these things is roughly irrelevant to the English speaking child.

Here's an example. As a former child, i remember these, and swore i'd never torture my kids with them, should i ever have any. As a parent, i enjoy torturing my kids with them. There are few other perks being a parent, so one must enjoy the opportunities available. Johnny and me went to the park. The correct phrasing is Johnny and I went to the park. Please don't explain what rule this breaks. The correct way to teach this is as follows. One must drop the Johnny and bit and see if it still sounds right. So, Me went to the Park doesn't scan as well as I went to the Park. And yet, when i was a kid, i didn't respond even to the full grammar lesson, with what amounts to technojargon words and rules, using what ever in a sing-song voice, as i routinely get now, even with my methods. So, there are at least two things to note here. The education problem is much harder these days, now that we don't demand so much respect from kids. And, it's likely that we're attempting to teach kids the full grammar rules before they're mentally equipped to deal with them.

I did hear a Johnny and me reference on the radio recently. It was correct. Which is to say, it passed my test. I can't remember when (if ever) i've encountered anyone doing it right. Maybe the simpler rule is to simply always use Johnny and I. It may not always be right, but it may be right so much more often as to not make any difference. You heard it first here.

Spelling is even easier to teach. Tell the kids to write lots of stuff, and demand that they use spelling checkers. Have them turn off the word processor feature that corrects words as you type. This feature doesn't teach anything. Have the word processor mark anything it doesn't understand, and allow it to offer suggestions. This is how i learned to spell. Learning vocabulary words by rote was irritating. It also wasn't nearly as effective at expanding vocabulary as simply reading challenging books.

This correct-as-you-type feature is pretty evil. IMCO (In My Considered Opinion), the feature should be removed from all software. It often "corrects" words that have been typed correctly. That is, it often introduces errors. I often use a specialized vocabulary, for computers, engineering, or some other business. I end up having to type the same word correctly half a dozen times in the course of editing. I often have to come up with unique tricks to get what i need, such as writing some longer word, and deleting bits of it to get the right spelling. I even have to correct broken capitalizations.

I went to an Engineering school. And i work with engineers. With few exceptions, these people are brilliant, well rounded people. But they often have poor English skills. They leave out articles, make references using pronouns without clearly establishing what the references are for, and so on. And many of these people only know one language. It's often far worse when English isn't their first language. From a strictly business point of view, one might say, who cares? The work is getting done, right? And these people are brilliant, right? But poor documentation, especially unclear and ambiguous documentation can lead to needless rework and worse. Worse is documentation that misleads. One could call it anti-documentation. You're actually better off without anything. It has negative value.

Now, when i went to school for engineering, there was considerable opportunity to write. There were lab reports and other assignments. There were requirements to do work outside of your chosen major. Usually, these were not graded on English grammar or spelling, however. There were projects that one needed to do in groups. Since i had advanced computer editing, formatting and typing skills, i generally typed up the group projects. And, it was somewhat of a surprise to me that my ability to compose prose was generally superior to that of other students. After all, these kids were all off-the-wall brilliant. I completely ignore students for which English was not their first language here. I'm talking about native English speakers. And yet, as far as i recall, the school did not offer an English course of any kind. But one really needs a firm understanding of English to achieve technical excellence. And technical excellence was clearly the primary goal of the school. So, while it isn't my opinion that engineering schools need to have an English department offering and capable of granting an English degree, they should offer English courses as an option. Otherwise, all students are stuck with whatever they happened to learn in high school.

How large is your vocabulary? It's worse than impractical to try to list all the words you know and count them. Humans are terrible at listing things, especially when the list is long, such as when there are more than about three items. And yet, it turns out that there is a fairly quick and simple way to find out. Get a dictionary that brags about the number of words it contains. Many college dictionaries boast half a million words. Get a blank piece of paper and a pencil. A pen will do. Make two columns, Right and Wrong. Open the dictionary to a random page. Jam your finger down the left edge without looking. Then slowly move your finger down until a new word is exposed. Examine the word. Do you know what it means? Can you use it in a sentence? Try it. Then read the definition. If you were right, make a mark in the Right column. Otherwise, make a mark in the Wrong column. Do this exactly thirty times. Now the math. Take the total number of words in the dictionary, multiply it by the number of words you got right and divide that by thirty. That is, multiply the total number by the fraction you got right. That's an estimate of the number of words you know. If you don't believe it, you can always use a larger sample than thirty, or repeat the experiment, or change dictionaries.

So, my spelling is now good enough that i frequently argue with my spelling checker. But there is a word that i always spell wrong. Everyone has one. For me, the word is wrong, which i always spell w r o n g.

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