Any English Questions?

NATE Classroom, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Any English Questions?


A series in which Classroom invites questions for a different guest respondent each term.

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Our guest for this 'Language' themed issue is Professor David Crystal, eminent writer, academic, lecturer and broadcaster on a wide range of subjects relating to English Language studies. His books and lectures on the English language, include his two encyclopedias for Cambridge University Press, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Recent books include By Hook or By Crook: a Journey in Search of English (2007) and Txtng: the Gr8 Db8 (2008).

1. Is there any real evidence that improving pupils' knowledge about language (KAL) impacts positively on their use of language?

There's no necessary connection. I always use an analogy: I have a friend who's a brilliant car mechanic, but a terrible driver. An intellectual knowledge doesn't necessarily transfer into skills, because other factors are involved, such as, in the car case, sensitivity to other road users. On the other hand, it's common sense that the more we know about our car, the more we're likely to take care of it and drive it well.

I'm in no doubt that the more one develops a KAL, the more one's language skills improve--remembering that we are talking about all four skills: listening, speaking, reading, writing. But it has to be the right KAL. Knowledge of grammatical parsing and terminology isn't enough. It has to be semantic and pragmatic knowledge--as argued in my Making Sense of Grammar (Longman 2004). Experimentally, some child language acquisition studies have shown that an awareness of metalanguage correlates positively with language development.

2. If we think with language and our thinking is dependent on language then should we have vocabulary lessons before we worry about English lessons?

Thinking isn't totally dependent on language, as anyone can show in a simple experiment. Reflect now on the route you take from home to work--your front door, the street you walk along, and so on. You can retrace your whole journey without using a single word. There are several types of thinking that don't require language.

Having said that, the emphasis on vocabulary is certainly important. It's been a neglected area, really. People have focused on grammar to the exclusion of semantics. But vocabulary can't be left to chance (as it usually is). There is so much of it (100K words in a small college dictionary) that it needs careful handling. I've a couple of papers which explore this further. See for example, 'Sense: the final frontier' at ttp://www.davidcrystal.com/David_Crystal/edu cation.htm

3. I was told on a recent course that for the first time ever in educational history a generation of schoolchildren might be doing more writing outside of school (computers, email, blogs, texting etc) than inside school. In the light of this 'revolution', what are your views on the increasing text-messaging/ Americanisation of the English language that is consequently taking place?

This is probably true. But the point to note is that it's a different kind of writing--or rather, kinds. The constraints on writing successful emails, blogs, texts, tweets, and so on, are different, and require good stylistic management, just as one needs in relation to traditional genres of written expression. Different notions of audience are involved, too, especially in relation to the anonymity of much of the e-medium.

It's not right to link texting and Americanization. …

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