The point is not the grammar, it’s the feeling

By David Parkinson

The element of style.

Every week, more or less, I tutor a young person whose first language is not English. This activity is tightly connected to the time of my arrival in Powell River, since one of the very first things I did when we got here was start attending the training sessions for the Volunteer Adult Literacy Tutoring program that Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University) offered, and continues to offer, every year. I think the first training session was the night we arrived in town, tired, bedraggled, and unsure what we had gotten ourselves into; so it was a good thing to have something to do once a week that got me out of the house and meeting people in my new hometown.

I have a background in linguistics, and spent some time in grad school teaching and tutoring students whose first language was not English; sometimes English was not their second or even third language. And although the adult tutoring program was oriented towards basic literacy tutoring and away from English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) tutoring, my main interest was in helping people learn another language and integrate themselves into a new culture, one of choice — or if not choice, then necessity, or maybe accidental outcome.

There are real differences between the typical adult literacy learner and the ESL learner; the former is often dealing with feelings of shame and inadequacy for failing to have mastered what comes so easily to so many others; whereas the latter is typically someone who is highly motivated to learn a new language so as to better fit into the surrounding culture, find better work, take part in conversations, read newspapers, follow television, and so on. The ESL learner is obviously proficient in speaking and understanding his or her first language, and is very often literate in that language. For this learner there is no shame in not speaking or understanding the dominant language of a new home. It’s simply another hurdle which the learner must jump in order to be successful.

There is a huge amount of research into the differences between the acquisition of one’s first language(s) and the acquisition of any subsequent languages, especially those to which we are exposed in school or as adolescents or adults. The languages which surround us and form the background of our young lives slowly and gradually drift up in our consciousnesses like snow swirling through the cracks in a wall: you can’t keep them out. The child’s mind is always at work, finding patterns and regularities, knitting stray ends into a seamless fabric, chopping a continuous sound signal into sentences, phrases, chunks, words, and down to the smallest units of linguistic value. After late childhood or early adolescence our ability to effortlessly acquire a new language mysteriously drops off. What was instinctual and thoughtless becomes hard work.

It’s astonishing when you know enough about linguistic structure to understand what it takes to go from no language to full linguistic capacity in only a few short years. In fact, our only chance to appreciate how miraculous language acquisition is comes when we try to learn another one, which usually means not through total immersion in the language but rather at the blunt end of grammar rules, the rote learning of rules and their exceptions, and the horrible grind of learning one word at a time, usually outside of a meaningful context.

Many of us who grew up in Canada, a country with official bilingualism, will know something of the pain of struggling to learn a new language on the basis of infrequent exposure, questionable motivation, and often lacklustre pedagogy. After about nine years of good grades in French classes in elementary and secondary school, I landed in Ottawa and then Montréal to find that I knew almost nothing: my comprehension was terrible and my ability to speak even worse. But I was motivated to improve, and did so by working and studying in French, ending up pretty close to bilingual.

This week my student and I were working on clauses (main, subordinate, coordinated, and relative) with a brief foray into the tangled nightmare of the English verb system with all its irregularities and inscrutable tenses, aspects, moods, and voices. Believe me when I say that our mere ability to talk to each other about events or states in the past, present, or future — whether they are completed, ongoing, repetitive, or continuous — whether they are actual, desired, or only possible — all hangs together by virtue of a system of interacting patterns of verb endings, syntactic constructions, and intonations that would blow our minds if we had to learn them from scratch instead of slowly imbibing them in immersion, over long years of readjustment that slowly fix in place a complex system of mental constructs robust enough to handle new forms and creatively generate variations on patterns. It’s a miracle we all take for granted.

Imagine if second-language acquisition were not merely a matter of successful integration into one’s new surroundings but a matter of survival. Imagine that we are the only tribe on our island and that our first language, the only one we know, has characteristics that actively harm us. Everytime we use the subjunctive form of a verb, a child dies. Everytime we coordinate two sentences to make a bigger one, a fight breaks out. Everytime we adverbially modify an adjective, someone breaks into uncontrollable tears and eventually goes catatonic. We need to change our language, but where to begin? How can we create a whole new language out of the air? We can’t know exactly which features of the current one are responsible for its ill effects; and anyway how does one work out the complete structure of an invented language not based on an existing one? We have no models around us from which to work here on the island. Meanwhile children, hearing this dangerous language spoken around them, grow up speaking it, dooming themselves and others to its ill effects.

What occurred to  me, as I reflected on all this after a long session with the clauses, irregular verbs, tenses, and aspects, is that our cultural patterns are very much like linguistic ones. As young children we imbibe the beliefs and behaviours that our native culture treat as timeless truths, and once we are fluent in the rules of this culture we find it hard to acquire new cultural norms. Even a growing sense that our culture has gone off the rails might not be able to change these patterns quickly enough. For next week’s post I’ll keep going with these reflections, maybe draw a provisional conclusion or two. Maybe not.


3 Responses to “The point is not the grammar, it’s the feeling”

  1. 1 jo March 5, 2011 at 19:25

    I really enjoyed reading this post. It was so thoughtful and contained some beautiful language.
    I’ve learned English and Spanish by ear. English, I learned in a blue-collar American household, so some of the habits I picked up had to be unlearned later in life. I never did get very far with grammar, so what I know has been picked up through reading and through listening to others.
    Spanish I learned as a young adult, picking a whole raft of nouns by pointing and repeating, then a few handfuls of verbs. I spent time immersed in situations where Spanish was the only language spoken, and I now have such compassion for those who struggle with a new language.
    In a group of people, it is common to just shut down and quit even trying to understand the conversation. The fatigue from struggling to express oneself is unbelievable. When I crossed the border and was able to speak in my native language again, I felt like a runner who’d shed the ankle weights and been given wings. I could articulate any thought that crossed my mind! I felt like a freaking genius!
    In the States, the huge majority of immigrants from Mexico are impoverished and uneducated. They are largely illiterate in their native language, so the task of becoming literate in English is a huge undertaking. And they are so scorned and marginalized by the dominant society. I wish these haters could experience what it is like to try and survive in a foreign culture, and struggle to communicate in a new language.
    Hooray for tutors, both ESL and Basic Literacy! Beautiful blog post! Can’t wait to read more.

  2. 2 David Parkinson March 12, 2011 at 17:50

    Thank you, Jo, for reading and sending a comment. Culture and language are such mind-blowing things… if we humans cared about much of anything, we could spend all day every day being amazed at our powers of creativity. Mainly we focus on other things, though.

  1. 1 Little things that keep us together « Slow Coast Trackback on March 12, 2011 at 17:48
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