December 18, 2006

French report: It's lucky Copernicus had grammar

Newflash from the Times Educational Supplement courtesy of Dennis Baron's language news blog: Beginning next year, two hours per week of grammar will be taught in French schools from elementary grades through high school.

This is only good, of course, from the point of view of us here at the Language Log -- more actual grammatical education means fewer pained posts about how 'God' is not, in fact, a verb -- but some of the discussion surrounding this curricular revision is, frankly, pretty funny. The minister seems to think1 it's about improving communicative effectiveness, which the TES report says he thinks can reduce the incidence of violence in riot-prone urban areas. [I haven't been able to find the original quote to this effect myself].

E. Orsenna, A. Bentolila, G. de Robien et D. Desmarchelier
present the report on grammar - Photo CP

The substance of the pedagogical plan in the report itself, authored by linguist Alain Bentolila of Université de Paris 5, involves recommendations about content for the curriculum at the various levels of instruction, with a great deal made of the 'organized progression' of grammatical concepts, some of it sensible enough (particularly the bit about how example sentences must be carefully chosen and presented so as to clarify rather than obscure a particular point under investigation). A lot is omitted, though -- phonology and morphology, for example, are not even mentioned. And in several places, in amongst the incredibly fanciful high-toned phraseology, bits of just plain silliness flap around:

Le verbe, catégorie reine de la grammaire, donnant à la langue son véritable pouvoir d'explication et d'argumentation. Le verbe qui ouvre les horizons du futur, qui fait resurgir les récits du passé. Comme le français fait bien les choses en nommant de la même façon le mot qui articule la phrase et l'outil linguistique qui articule notre pensée : verbe qui se conjugue, Logos qui impose au monde l'intelligence de l'homme.
"The verb, queen of grammatical categories, giving language its true powers of description and argumentation. The verb, which opens the horizons of the future, which reanimates the stories of the past. How fitting that French names in the same way the word that structures the sentence and the linguistic tool which structures our thoughts: verb which conjugates, Logos which imposes the intelligence of Man on the world."2

...and later:

Dans la phrase «Les maçons ont construit la maison.», l'action qui relie maçons à maison, c'est bien la construction. Si l'on parle de verbes transitifs c'est tout simplement parce que cette action «transite» des maçons vers la maison
"In the sentence The masons constructed the house, the action which relates the masons to the house is of course the construction itself. We speak of transitive verbs simply because the action 'transits' from the masons towards the house." *

The introduction of the report veers lyrically from rhetoric about how making generic universal assertions (like "Dogs bark") invokes a particular kind of personal responsibility, to the importance of grammatical instruction while learning to read, to the observation that a language without the combinatoric power of grammar would be "condemned to infinite multiplication of its vocabulary in a hopeless attempt to cover the immense diversity of perceived and imagined reality." The report opens with an elaborate just-so story about a collection of almost impossibly dense children and a teacher of infinite-resource-and-sagacity who gets them to observe that the change in position of a shadow over the course of a day indicates something about the movement of something or other. It culminates in the observation that without grammar, Copernicus couldn't have communicated his conclusion that the earth orbits the sun, since the words can equally express the notion that the sun orbits the earth.

As noted in this commentary by Sylvia Plane, throughout the report, there is a peculiar conflation of the actual, internalized grammar that is deployed by speakers in any linguistic act, and the study of that grammar, which is what the report is recommending. They imply that studying grammar will have beneficial effects in using one's internal grammar, which is what is supposed to motivate its study. The report claims that an explicit understanding of the mechanisms of grammar facilitates learning to read, communicative effectiveness, and literary study and appreciation. To justify this kind of assertion, the authors of the report should be citing pedagogical studies contrasting the reading test scores of children who had two hours of grammatical instruction per week with the scores of children who spent those two hours in practicing their reading and writing straight up. The report doesn't cite any such evidence, and as far as I know, no research has been done that would support this kind of claim. All the verbiage about the importance of grammatical instruction is subject to refutation, if its functional benefit to the student is presented as the main justification. (The argument is analogous to saying that to be a competent musician, several years of explicit study of music theory is essential -- it could help, perhaps, but it's clearly not essential.)

If you ask me, explicit grammatical instruction should indeed be part of the regular school curriculum, not because of any claim that it improves reading comprehension or any other language-use skill (though, of course, hooray if it does) but because it's an important, fascinating and accessible human science. Despite the report's insistence on the parallelism between the structure of a sentence and the structure of a thought, it never touches on the implications of grammar for cognitive science, nor mentions the revolution in the study of the mind that was precipitated precisely by Chomsky's recognition that human linguistic behavior could not be the result of strictly associative learning. In studying grammar, students can learn what it is to apply the scientific method directly to their own species, with the concomitant discovery that one can ask scientific questions about a whole host of areas which don't leap to the eye from the physics-chemistry-biology canon -- grammatical study can teach one how to be a scientist of humanity. Besides that, it's practical: the raw material for linguistic study is abundant and directly accessible to everyone in a classroom without special equipment. And the range of applications for linguistic expertise are expanding at an almost unbelievable rate. Besides the obvious ones -- law, language teaching, speech therapy, translation (machine or otherwise), any kind of speech technology, editing -- there are many information-age professions for which grammatical expertise is important. A young French citizen who would like to work for Microsoft or Google will find that a grounding in grammatical study will serve amazingly well.

Plus, of course, when such an educated Français(e) comes across an ambiguous sentence or unclear expression in their own or others' writing, they will be able to describe explicitly and sensibly why it is the way it is. One doesn't need grammatical training to spot ambiguity or infelicity; one doesn't need grammatical training to eliminate ambiguity or infelicity, but one does need linguistic training to talk sensibly about what was wrong and why the reformulated version fixed the problem.

1Links that appear in green are to documents entirely in French.
2Suggestions for improving these translations are gratefully accepted -- hharley AT email DOT arizona DOT edu.

Update I: Geoffrey Nunberg sends in the following news story from Libération in which the minister's original quote appears: Des cours plus simples et plus ludiques, and also this piece from Les Echos, which has a similar theme (see the last paragraph). He also notes:

"In this connection, some years ago John Rae, the headmaster of the Westminster School, blamed the disruptions of the 1960's on the abandonment of grammar:

The overthrow of grammar coincided with the acceptance of the equivalent of creative writing in social behaviour. As nice points of grammar were mockingly dismissed as pedantic and irrelevant, so was punctiliousness in such matters as honesty, responsibility, property, gratitude, apology and so on. (Observer 7 Feb 1982)"

Who'd have thought that grammatical understanding could have such far-reaching consequences, of a kind normally only attributed to vigorous participation in team sports or Bible study?

* Update II: Chirs Waigl wrote to help me out with this translation, which made it actually considerably more sensible and less flappy although still not entirely transparent. She also writes:

I used to teach English at French lower secondary state schools for two years, so I know that scene a little bit, and the lingo the curriculum and its authors employ.... As for explicit grammar teaching in French schools, the one things that is immediately apparent to any observer who has not grown up in the French system is how much there is, and for how long. And verbal morphology plays a large role. One of the main explanation I've found for this emphasis on "conjugaison" is quite simply the spelling-system-induced gap between the morphology of written and spoken French. As a simple example, children will build their knowledge of the present tense of a verb like "manger" (eat) with three distinct forms -- they all sound alike, except for the first and second person plural. It must come as a bit of a shock to the 6 to 8 year olds when they realize that there are actually five different spellings involved (je mange, tu manges, ils mangent sound alike except before vowels, when there just _might_ be an audible ending).

And finally, Mark Etherton sends in the link to Erick Orsenna's web page, novelist and language maven, and member of the Académie Française, who collaborated on the report. Mark reports that his grammatical writings have a highly individual character; perhaps his influence may account for some of the more poetic turns of phrase.

Posted by Heidi Harley at December 18, 2006 03:54 PM