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English is the only way to keep up with the world

Keeble McFarlane

Saturday, August 25, 2012    

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I'M getting a little tired of the sterile argument about the teaching of English in schools. No one is decrying the dialect that every Jamaican knows and understands: every language has its dialects and regional peculiarities, and English is the undisputed champion of that. Although they all speak the same language, it would be somewhat of a challenge (and quite a bit of fun) for a Geordie (someone from north-eastern England), a Sri Lankan, an Australian, a raw-chaw Jamaican and a US hillbilly to conduct a conversation!

I was among a generation who had excellent instruction in English right from pre-school, when a woman who lived next-door to my parents' house in May Pen always had about a dozen children at her house every day. We learned the basics such as recognising the letters of the alphabet as well as our numbers. We learned to add and subtract using an abacus - a wooden frame with different-coloured beads of a series of wires strung across the frame. It was a remarkably simple system and easy to learn, but enabled us to compute big numbers. The syllabus was simple - learning the sound of letters and forming those letters and numbers; basic arithmetic and being mindful of dress and deportment.

Elementary school was a continuous round of more grammar and arithmetic as well as reading and the beginnings of geography, simple science, history and music. Our teachers - almost exclusively women - were patient and meticulous in instructing us in reading, writing and speaking English properly. In those days we had no ballpoint pens (a new invention at the time) and used old-fashioned nib pens which we dipped into inkwells and inscribed letters on double-lined pages. Before graduating to that we used writing tablets made from a slice of slate and inscribed with a pencil made from the same soft rock. Our exercise books came in two varieties - single-line and double-line. Double-line was the standard for little children, and we fitted the body of each letter between the two lines and used the wide spaces in between for the extensions which defined each letter. It was only after we mastered the double-lines that we were allowed to move up to single-line pages.

The back cover of each exercise book contained tables of the full spectrum of weights and measures - Apothecaries', avoirdupois and Troy weights with their drams, ounces, bushels, pecks and hogsheads as well as hundredweights and tons, and the fanciful links, chains, furlongs, roods and whatnot. At the bottom of the cover we had the multiplication tables, from two to 12. We used to memorise the tables and rattle them off when, for instance, playing hide-and-seek. To this day, whenever I am faced with a group of figures, I consult my read-only memory and recite the appropriate multiplication table to come up with the answer. Even in those early days we were introduced to metric weights and measures and our rulers had inches on one side and millimetres and centimetres on the other edge.

Educators of today claim that teaching by rote is boring and turns children off. Well, it sure didn't turn us off. It may be boring for the teachers, but as you can deduce from the zeal with which we employed the tables for play, it was an important method of learning. Just as a pocket calculator, desktop adding machine or computer relies on its read-only memory to complete calculations, our brains use some form of read-only memory every day.

Teachers in many places long ago abandoned teaching children grammar, expecting them to learn by osmosis the rules which govern putting words and sentences together. This is why many universities now have to arrange classes for incoming students who, after a career of filling in multiple-choice tests instead of writing essays, have only the slightest grasp of grammar and syntax or handwriting, for that matter.

In today's fast-moving world, English has long been established as the lingua franca of trade, finance, communications, science and diplomacy. When a Russian engineer consults counterparts from Japan and Venezuela at an international technical conference in Bangalore, how do they communicate? In English, of course. When the captain of a Chinese ship is navigating the crowded entrance to Rotterdam Harbour, where the mighty Rhine meets the North Sea, the radio traffic between all those vessels and the land-based control centre is all in English. Air traffic controllers the world over guide aircraft from every country in English.

So, to limit instruction to children in a form of speech used by only a few people guarantees a continuing slide into irrelevance in an extremely competitive world. We are extremely fortunate to have as our default language the tongue of Chaucer, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Mervyn Morris, Toni Morrison and Olive Senior, and should capitalise on this circumstance to advance our position in the world.

Language problems are not limited to this small corner of the world - to a large extent the young people of North America and other influential places, who are thoroughly at home with computers, smart phones, iPads and whatnot, don't understand many of the simple rules of grammar. The issue has come to life on a website which tackles the problem of planned obsolescence. Called iFixit,org, it advocates repairing many of the devices we use daily when they malfunction, instead of throwing them out. The site relies on contributions from people who have had to fix gadgets and explain how they did it. The problem? Many of the contributions are difficult to understand because of lousy grammar.

The founder posted a notice last week stating that "Last month, I wrote an article on the merits of good grammar http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/07/i_wont_hire_people_who_use_poo.html in the workplace. The upshot of the piece: I don't hire people with atrocious grammar ... Since the article ran in Harvard Business Review, it has sparked a huge debate, including a very well-written response http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2012/07/language-and-computers from The Economist. I've got e-mails, tweets, and comments from thousands of people ...

Yesterday, the debate spread to The New York Times. They asked a panel of experts, "Is Our Children Learning Enough Grammar to Get Hired?" http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/08/13/is-our-children-learning-enough-grammar-to-get-hired (And yes, they purposely included an error in the title.)

The post invites people to jump into the discussion and concludes: "If correcting grammar warms the cockles of your heart, help us improve user-contributed guides http://www.ifixit.com/Contribute?flagFilter=GUIDE_GRAMMAR_ERRORS that have been flagged for grammar errors. Doing so earns you grammar karma and makes guides easier for people to use ... We're making the world more repairable, one (grammatically correct) guide at a time. The better all of our guides are, the more people will be able to fix the stuff they own."

As you can see, this business of language is not to be taken lightly. Speaking clearly, in a well-organised manner, demonstrates not only clear thinking but also personal discipline. Doing so in a globe-girdling language, which is spreading and growing daily, makes perfect sense. Jamaica is a bilingual country, but the education system should concentrate its efforts on learning the most international language of all time, instead of wallowing in sentimentality and speaking to a very limited audience.

— keeble.mack@sympatico.ca

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