In this issue of Education Canada, an article by Paul Budra on why we should be teaching grammar gives me the opportunity to muse about one of my own passions – the importance of language competence.
As an editor, I am immersed in the complexities and the nuances of language daily. It’s an immersion I love. I happily swim about among verb tenses, dependent and independent clauses, and tricky word choices. But throw many of our young people into that sea of linguistic complexity, and they flounder – or drown.
I would never argue that teaching the structure of the language automatically confers good communication skills, or that young people should be discouraged from the free, unfettered communication of “free writing”. But I do think we deprive them of a great gift when we choose not to offer them the power that a deeper understanding of their language provides.
Like Budra, I think many students would be intrigued by the intricacy of grammar and syntax, just as many are intrigued by the intricacy of mathematical formulae and biological diversity. Not all, of course. But we’re not even giving them a chance. For a few years I taught a writing course to first- and second-year university students; we couldn’t discuss writing issues sensibly because they didn’t have the basic vocabulary. What’s an active verb? For that matter, what’s a verb? Naming parts of speech may seem trivial, but if you were helping a friend put up a shelf, would you ask for “the thing with the flat metal end you can use to pound the pointy object into the wood”? We need to be able to talk about the tools at our disposal – whether they’re hammers or prepositions.
There is so much more at stake here than passing a provincial literacy test or doing well on a history assignment. Language competence – real comfort with the language and its almost infinite flexibility – opens the door to varieties of expression that, in turn, open the door to varieties of ideas. It truly is a revolving door; expressing ideas in words helps us clarify and modify our thoughts, and that ability, I would argue, is central to the effective functioning of a democratic society.
So – does our democracy depend on teaching subject-verb agreement and comma usage in public schools? Probably not. But it does depend on ensuring that our young people can juggle increasingly complex ideas and both understand and express nuances of meaning. If teaching the technical skills of writing helps even some of them do that, we can’t afford to overlook it.