Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Correct grammar, decent behaviour, proper morals

As I help fellow growing participators, I am constantly confronted with common “folk theories” of language and language learning (which I meet in myself as well). I mean, we all live by means (mediation) of such folk theories in all areas of life. 

Recently I reread the article:
Miller, Laura & Ginsberg, Ralph B. (1995). “Folklinguistic Theories of Language Learning” by Laura Miller and Ralph B. Ginsberg. In Freed, Barbara F. Second Language Acquisition in a Study Abroad Context. Benjamins, pp. 293-316.

The notion of folk theories ties in with the topic of “cultural models” that has become increasingly important in the GPA.

As an example of a folk-theoretical assumption attributed to American students in Russia, Miller and Ginsberg cite the following: "...there is a correct version of Russian which they should strive to learn, [and] this prototype is a coherent logical system having fixed rules in which deviations are wrong (p. 300)."

Discourses about “proper (or good) grammar” and “proper speech” are fascinating--and challenging, as they must tap into issues like the moral values embedded in social group membership and intergroup relations. For the sake of those of us whose folk theories clash significantly with GPA assumptions, leading to small or great confusion, I want to dwell on this for a minute or more.

In connection with the assumption cited on p. 300, I would like to ask people, where is that correct version of Russian located at the moment? 

What makes it “good grammar” or “proper speech” to avoid widely spoken forms such as “ain’t” (even my spellchecker rejects “ain’t”, while accepting certain well-known vulgarities) or simple-past-tense “seen” as in “I seen him yesterday”. To question the reality of “good grammar” feels kinda like questioning the reality of "proper versus improper behaviour," maybe even questioning the existence of "good and evil" or of moral absolutes--linguists, like scientists in general, promoting moral relativism such as modifying their user-defined spell checking dictionaries to permit "ain't".

I hear an outcry coming from voices in my mind: “Are you saying good grammar isn't important?” “Looking at the compositions of college freshmen, it seems our school system has really failed a whole generation in terms of teaching them their own language.” “Let's get back to basics!” “Let's get tough on crime!” Etc. 

But my friends on the “right” (in the American sense of politically conservative) don’t have a monopoly on “proper-speech” realism. You may be an ardent activist in the National Rifle Association (“right”), and you may be an ardent activist in the American Civil Liberties Union (“left”). You can be on many sides of many moral issues. But you both agree without discussion that “I saw him,” is absolutely superior to “I seen him,” for reasons that indeed appear to assume a transcendent source of morality (a tacit assumption which may turn out to lurk behind any cases non-indifference to moral issues).

There are other ways of looking at matters like the contrast between “I saw him,” versus “I seen him,” in addition to mediation by unexamined folk theories. Linguists during the first two thirds of the twentieth century especially emphasized a distinction between “prescriptive grammar” and “descriptive grammar,” taking the latter to be their (scientific) concern, and leaving the former to schoolmarms/masters who didn’t know anything about linguistics anyway, and hence could not be expected to understand that the choice between “I saw him” and “I seen him” is arbitrary-- a matter of historical accidents.  But that leaves the schoolmarms/masters defending the distinction between right and wrong, while scientists (linguists in this case) promote their expected moral relativism.

(Interestingly, though, if Miller and Ginsberg are right, then when linguists and other scholars get down to discussing language learning issues, they are in many ways influenced by the same folk theories that influence the general public.)

Sociolinguists (arising in the 1960s and 70s) might be considered a lot more helpful in the present connection than descriptive linguists, since they find rhyme and reason in a distinction such as “I saw him” versus “I seen him”. Not just arbitrary accidents of history, but social driven developments. This lets us deconstruct the notion of “proper speech” in ways that give us a richer, “scientific" story, thus helping to locate moral issues in matters such as class struggle and colonialism. “Proper speech” is now about prestige. Prestige markers may consist in the quality of a vowel or consonant as well as combinations of morphemes, word choices, etc. You don’t need a lot of these linguistic social markers to do the job of keeping straight who is whom when you hear someone speak (that is, marking the speaker's identity in terms of group membership), but for the social markers in speech to work well, people need to have a strongly inculcated sense that, for example, saying “It wasn’t he,” locates one a higher social (and moral or immoral, depending on your perspective) rung than saying “It wasn’t him.” Similarly, a strongly developed sense of speech-and-social-identity applies in reverse on over the trucker's CB radio or on the construction site, where "double negatives" (ain't got no beer) carry the same “covert prestige" as accounts of one’s drunken and/or sexual antics last weekend. Gradually the tables may turn, as new generations become sensitized to the hypocrisy of “posh” ways of sounding (such as saying, “It wasn’t he.”) Even then, the historical moral superiority of “posh” speech may continue to shine through, as it continues to be favoured by clergy (and academic stuffed shirts on the political right, left and centre). 

Folk theories/cultural models of language and language learning hit us growing participators on the home front and on the host front. I bring with me my home languaculture’s story-making pieces such as “proper grammar”. Such understandings are part of my “foreign accent” (which exists not only on the level of my pronunciation, but in every aspect of my growing participation). On the host front, the host people who nurture me will bring their own folk theories/cultural models in the areas of language and language teaching/learning. As in general, being nurtured into host practices is a long, many-year process, and never entails that I come to share all host beliefs! However, whether I come to share them or not, coming to understand host cultural models is necessary to coming to understanding host action in general. Suppose I’m being nurtured into an Anglo languacultural world where the story-making-pieces-of-life include, “proper speech” (related to “proper behaviour” in general) and/or “posh speech” and/or "one-of-the-boys' speech". As a growing participator, at the least, I’ll want to eventually mediate my listening to host people by means of my knowing these host pieces of life.

Next time, I’ll share a bit of my "objectivist" personal take on the matter of "proper grammar" and its relationship to growing participation (informed by folk theories and by scientific Discourses--including my folk-theoretical false-confidence in scientism and opposing, antiscientistic Discourses).