The Miseducation of Grammar

What has been passing off as “education” is nothing close to what it ought to be. We know this. Yet we continue on with the charade. Ideally, an educated person has a body of knowledge about many subjects, but more importantly s/he can think critically. This thinking critically bit gives us the most aggravation. Because it has been my experience that the more “educated” a person, the less likely s/he can think critically. If you’re not sure about that one, just try disagreeing with a PhD. I dare you.

Education has a curriculum. It’s this many subjects, this many books and this many aptitudes. And there are endless debates about what these things should be. But there is also an invisible curriculum. And that curriculum is more insidious because it is more powerful in creating who we are as an individual and a society.

At the heart of this invisible curriculum is the teaching of “grammar”. It is most visible when teaching a foreign language. We teach the grammar of that language. The idea being, if you know the formula of the language, it should be easy to speak in that language. But this is hardly the case. We speak our native language fluently, and yet we are hardly aware of it’s grammar. Nobody seems to notice this.

When it comes to native language learning, we call it “acquisition”. And we know young brains are built for language acquisition. I have a theory as to why education is rife with the teaching of grammar. We have to take a short look at history.

The general area where the country we now know as Great Britain used to be called Brittania. Brittania was invaded in 1066 AD by the Normans, from the area now known as France. (This is why the Brits hate the French.)

It is debated whether they brought the Angles (from Gaul, now Germany) as slaves or whether the Angles were already living in Brittania from 500 AD. Regardless of that debate, after 1066 AD, the Angles were servants of the French aristocracy.

So, the upper-class language was French and lower class language was “Anglish”, which later becomes “English”. We can trace this in the DNA of the language simply by looking at a few words.

For instance, beef is the meat of a cow, mutton is the meat of a lamb and pork is the meat of a pig. Very ordinary to us, but this is not so in other languages. The reason this is unique to English is because “beef” was adopted from the French word for cow, which is “beeof”. Same for “mutton” and “porc”.

You see, while the “cow” was raised by the servants, it’s meats were consumed by aristocrats who also called it cow but in their own language. Think the difference between a “chauffeur” and a driver. The former is French, while the latter is English.

Around and after 1300 AD a few cases of the Black Plague due to poor sanitation in the cities, a lot of people died, especially the lower classes, the Angles. With a reduction of the servants, all of a sudden Brittania had a labor shortage.

This was a crisis for the French aristocracy, but more importantly, the Angles finally realized how much the upper classes were dependent on them. They started to organize and form trade unions. The trade unions had collective bargaining power which individual servants did not.

Formations of these trade unions were unique in the entire world. Up to that time there were the filthy rich and the dirt poor. With the advent of trade unions and greater distribution of wealth, slowly a middle-class emerged.

All the great things we enjoy today from political freedom to scientific discoveries to art has been due to the unerring actions of the middle-class. It was they who got the Magna Carta signed, limiting the King’s power and improving the living conditions of the poor.

So the trade unions were formed, which were mainly Angles, and it facilitated a middle-class who began to gain self-respect but also demanded respect from others. They began to popularize the idea that Brittania was their land, that is “Angle Land”. As you can guess, “Angle Land”, “Angleland”, became England.

Additionally, while the language of the upperclass was still French, the Anglish or now the English, would never be able to replace it. Instead what they sought to replace is the language of science, that was Latin at the time. They had the foresight to see long-term benefits of this. But if they told the King, who was French, they wanted to do this, he would outright prevent them their wish.

So very cunningly, they devised a plan. They told the King that due to the Black Plague and deaths of many, they needed schools to teach Latin so that the land can benefit from all the scientific developments. The King was all for it.

So how do you teach a language in order to kill it? You focus on it’s grammar. Hence those first schools were called “Grammar Schools”. The idea was simple, you teach the grammar, the underlying principles of a language, in order for students to learn it. It’s called the Grammar-Translation method.

Now you should ask yourself, how familiar are you with the grammar of your native tongue? With the exception of language teachers, most of us are not. One of the reason for it is our brain is very smart. Our fluency in our native tongue comes from our being immersed in the language and our brains figuring out the grammar rules on a subconscious level. Hence we are not consciously aware that we know grammar but are able to be fluent in our native language.

English has become the international language. It is the language of science, diplomacy and commerce. It is the second language in almost all countries around the world. And the most popular method they use to teach it is the Grammar-Translation method. Hence you’ll find while most people will understand written English and perhaps even be able to write in it themselves, yet the majority of them will not be able to speak it. This is the weakness of the Grammar-Translation method. It takes that natural acquisition process of language and turns it on it’s head.

Perhaps the Anglish didn’t know what they were doing, who knows? The Grammar Schools taught Anglish children Latin using the Grammar-Translation method. Gradually, Latin became a dead language. The Anglish children used their native tongue, Anglish/English to do their work. And slowly English took over the sciences.

This teaching grammar, did not just effect language teaching going into the future. It also set the precedent for what schools should be teaching for every subject. For instance, for math, we teach formulas and how to apply those formulas to given problems. And in my view, this is the wrong way of teaching math.

Do we need to learn Calculus or Linear Algebra in secondary education? I don’t think so. Instead can we focus on creating a curriculum where students figure out the arithmetic, geometric or even algebra formulas? Given such exercises, their brains will function at a higher level. A mind that is able to figure out the formula for the area of a rectangle is superior to a mind that know how to apply a memorized calculus formula. Think about Newton, these days a 15 year old knows more about math than Newton did, yet we glorify Newton because he had a sort of mind that was able to figure out things on his own.

So let’s do away with the Grammar-Translation method in our education system. I am sure we will not only create a better system of education but also have education that is fun and engaging.