Friday, July 5, 2013

Grammar pieces are hot buttons, alive and active and sharp

Wow! I was just told that my blog was deleted. Fortunately, I just got it back. I'm not backed up )-:

Sorry I've been away so long. Life has been a bit topsy-turvey lately.

I talked about "proper grammar" as normally understood in the popular mind in literate languacultures--that is, it is treated almost as a moral issue, but it happens that the children of the people with power, talk more "properly" than the children of people with little power, since it's the native speech form of the people with power.

Now the host-world guardians of good morals would be concerned if another host says

Me and my two kids went there yesterday.

Instead of

My two kids and I went there yesterday.

These could both come out of the mouths of host people, and carry differing social meanings about the speaker. But if you think of second language learning, the issue really isn't really much about things like

Me and my two kids went there yesterday.  vs.  My two kids and I went there yesterday.

Rather, it is about non-host-people saying things such as

Yesterday, me and my two kid, we going there.

What often appears to me to be the case is that even with foreign speech, the idea of speaking properly  as a moral concern carries over to foreigner's weird speech, too. I think I have sensed this the most in Russia, hearing teachers talk about how wrongly foreigners get things. Tsk, tsp, tsp!

Now bad grammar often works fine. So why the moral urgency about good grammar? Well, anyway, what is grammar? (And is it master or servant.)

Well, I think to most literate, second language students, Grammar is the collection of instructions for forming sentences that are "well-formed" or "grammatical". Grammar is the recipe, or recipe book, that you follow in order to talk correctly. It doesn't actually do anything except make the form of the sentence correct. It's about getting the right pieces in the right places.

In the GPA, we instead view grammatical elements as "processing cues". The bits of grammar include words like the, and could but also suffixes like -ing, and the order of words, and the rhythmic patterns that show the phrasing of a sentence. These elements of grammar are not lifeless pieces that must be put into the right spots to make the sentences well-formed. Rather they are hot-buttons that set off rapid processes in the listening comprehension system of the host listener's brain. That is, the bits of grammar are quick and active, and sharper than a sword! A foreigner speaking Urdu, may tell a Pakistani something that begins with mera bhai, 'my brother'. Now he might well mean to say, "My brother, please help me!" But that is going to throw the host listener's processing system way off. That is because the a on the end of mera ('my') is one of those bits that is alive and active for the host listener, and dead as a door nail for the foreigner. So if I hear the foreigner say, "My brother, help me!" using mera with the a on the end, then it won't bother me at all, and I may understand the sentence more easily than the host person does. But for the host person, since the a is a hot button, and his comprehension system in his brain is getting contradictory cues. The a tells his listening system, "the speaker is going to comment about his brother--to give some new information about him". But then instead of saying something about his brother to the person he is addressing, the speaker asks the person for help. Confusing (ever so briefly). This is probably one reason sometimes foreigners can understand each other more easily than host people can understand them. You see, if the word for brother is not the subject of the sentence, then the possessive word for 'my' won't be mera but rather mere.  And that -e  is a different hot button. There are many more possibilities then how the rest of the sentence might be going to continue, but having the brother understood as the subject isn't one of them.

Well, you don't know Urdu, but my point is that the primary role of grammatical form and grammatical elements is to trigger processes in the comprehension system, not just so that you can have all the pieces in the right spot because that's how people like sentences to be.