Wednesday, February 28, 2007

My concern is if students can communicate

By George Rosecrans

The stark reality is that the Chinese know technical English grammar better than we do. It's been drilled into them. A Chinese colleague once observed that "We know grammar so well we can't speak."

For over fifty years the Chinese followed the Soviet model which was primarily memorize every grammatical rule no matter how arcane. Their examinations usually consisted of being presented a complex sentence and being asked to identify the grammatical structure in great detail, or they were given a set of grammatical rules and expected to compose a sentence around them.

The rest of their English education was to essentially memorize dictionaries. The problem was, and still remains, that even though armed with a complete understanding of grammar and a vocabulary exceeding twenty-thousand words, they still can't order a meal in a restaurant or engage in casual conversation.

I am not a grammarian. Although a published writer with a pretty decent list, I avoided the English department while in school. I was fortunate to test out of English Comp. All that aside, I believe one should seek out and split infinitives whenever and wherever possible. The purpose of language is to communicate. Grammar Nazis not withstanding, if one is able to communicate their message, needs or ideas, that is sufficient.

The L2 level needed by most folks is related to their needs and roles. The higher the role the higher the level required. Jin Zhemin's interpreter must speak at a higher level than a tourist trying to buy a coke in Disney World.

If one's L2 is good enough to meet their needs and maybe pass on a little culture that is sufficient. After who know show many years of study, most people will only be able to retain and actually use enough L2 to function at their normal level. Especially if they are not in an L2 setting everyday. Personally, I'm not concerned with my students ability to parse a sentence. My concern is that they be able to communicate as clearly and concisely as possible.

I am morally opposed to political and linguistic facism. Frankly, I don't care if one speaks with grammatical perfection. The reality is that most people don't. Listen to the common language user, be they English, (American, Australian, British, Irish, New Zealander, or Scot,) French, German or Chinese.

Most people rarely if ever speaking perfect grammatical English, especially at the emotional level where one's real command of the language is revealed. Still they manage to get their message across and get things done. Ultimately it is communicative competence that is important. Eloquence is always nice but not always required.

How eloquent and grammatical does one need to be to order a hamburger or, for my more closely Anglo rooted brethren and sistern, fish and chips.

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