• July 28, 2014

Why Every Professor Needs Linguistics 101

By now it should be obvious that grammar instruction doesn't benefit anyone. Students hate it; teachers never learned grammar themselves, or if they did, they promptly forgot most of it. And study after study shows that overt grammar lessons don't lead to better writing. Right?

Well, I am a linguist and an educator, and I believe that we need to re-examine both our assumptions and the facts about grammar's role in education. Plenty of high-school students are indeed learning to distinguish their adjectives from adverbs. And a good thing, too, because alongside those studies "proving" the worthlessness to students of grammar education is research showing its benefits, such as increasing one's control over language. So why all the mixed messages? The grammar picture is murky, I believe, because (to paraphrase Raymond Carver) we don't really know what we talk about when we talk about grammar.

The label "grammar" gets applied very broadly by both professors and students. While adjectives and adverbs are grammatical labels, commas and apostrophes are part of writing mechanics, and "their" for "there" is a spelling error. At the same time, we also see grammar too narrowly and ignore such things as style and meaning. Ultimately, to be successful, educators need to focus on and talk about all aspects of language, including its many varieties.

After all, language is not a static, homogeneous entity. My students are convinced that "based off of" sounds just as correct as "based on"; it is my job to re-examine the state of prepositions in the language, not to assume that the students are wrong. Students are not only younger and younger (have you noticed?), thus more likely to be using language in ways older professors haven't encountered, but they also bring to class many dialects of English: regional, social, and international. A linguistically unaware professor is ultimately not fully trained.

I was struck by this need for a linguistically educated professoriate this past summer while reading Academically Adrift. The authors, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, focus on weaknesses at the college level that leave graduates without three crucial skills: critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. By sophomore year, they say, college students have gained little ground in any of these areas. What do these three measures have in common? They ask students to think about language less intuitively and instead as a system with rules. But students cannot gain such skills without their professors also being able to talk about language structure and use in a similar way, uncovering their own uncertainties and biases and acknowledging that language changes.

As a start, I want every professor to enroll in a crash course in Linguistics 101. The goal: for teachers to better appreciate and deal with all the forms of English that are present in the college population, and aid students as they transition to college study and face a range of academic-literacy demands across subject matter.

To help achieve this goal, college instructors would benefit from more communication and collaboration with educators in secondary education to better understand what grammar rules students learn before they enter college. It could well be that teachers on both sides of the divide are sending contradictory signals to students about their expectations of "good English."

Try this: Look at the dialects of English that your students use. Now look at the English used in educational materials like textbooks, tests, and college-placement exams; compare and contrast. Ask your local high-school English teacher what the typical writing assignments are in 11th and 12th grades. Now ask about reading load and complexity. Look at your college's policy toward AP exams, dual-credit programs, SAT scores, and placement exams. How prepared are students for college work when they bring AP credits and place out of crucial courses?

With such linguistic knowledge and more awareness of the high-school curriculum, college educators can predict—as well as prevent—obstacles that students encounter with the type of linguistic knowledge required in college work.

I believe we will see results, in terms of learning, across the board, not just in the freshman-composition classroom but also in those crucial academic skills examined by Arum and Roksa. Ultimately, what is at stake is the new college student's ability to acquire the college-literacy skills necessary for success, and each professor's ability to guide that student.

Susan Behrens is a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Marymount Manhattan College. She is the author of Grammar: A Pocket Guide and co-editor with Judith A. Parker of Language in the Real World: An Introduction to Linguistics (both 2010 from Routledge).

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