Education Opinion

Lowering the Bar

By Catherine A. Dietz — October 17, 2001 5 min read
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Tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our constitution, let's make some struggles for our language. —Samuel Johnson

Each day, a barrage of linguistic inaccuracies assaults me: a billboard suggesting, “Relax, whine, and dine"; a storefront window exclaiming, “Cookies— There Back!"; a guest on a TV talk show who says people are “disrespecting” a politician. This pervasive destruction of language needs to stop, and one remedy lies close at hand—within our classrooms. We need to teach that in language, the rules matter. And then we need to set a good example.

Students must be well-versed in a formal as well as an informal linguistic register.

As a 6th grade English teacher, I witness the daily struggles of my students as they learn to adhere to the conventions of the English language’s formal register. They try desperately to master homonyms (their, there, they’re), pronoun usage (subject vs. object), and the vocabulary needed for academic discourse. Because I am conscious of the difficulty this poses for many of them, I know it is imperative that I, as their teacher, provide them a model of correct written and spoken forms of our language. This means it is my responsibility not only to differentiate between the formal and informal forms of speech, but also to show when each is acceptable.

There is a time and place for everything, as the saying goes. While teaching a lesson or discussing academic matters, I hold strongly to the formal. When I see a student in the grocery store, or sit next to one at a basketball game, I slip into an informal mode. The difference may be as subtle as “hey” for “hello,” and vice versa. But this distinction between registers is a necessary and invaluable lesson. As University of California linguistics professor John McWhorter says in Spreading the Word, “the job of school is to add a new layer to a child’s speech repertoire, not to undo the one they already have.”

Alarmingly, however, there are those, even among our most learned, who disregard entirely the need to stress the rules of formal grammar and syntax. One linguistics professor, for example, has argued that “I ain’t got none” is really the same as “I haven’t got any.” This is a dialectical difference, he says. Both represent legitimate forms of speech. While neither may be formally correct, they are mere deviations of English, rather than signs of ignorance. This fits nicely with the unfortunate but widespread belief we see today that teachers should teach the history and conventions of language and rhetoric, yet not worry too much about how their students internalize these lessons in their spoken language. Or, as this professor says, “So much anxiety is put on correcting children.”

As a teacher, is this not my job? If a child said that 2+2=5, would we not want to make him aware of the error? Children need guidance, support, and yes, correcting. That is the essence of being a student. The key for teachers is the approach taken to correction. Children should not, of course, be berated or shamed for a mistake. But what is vital to the learning process is that they be encouraged to try and to explore—and given the correct information to do so. Just as we would correct a young child who reads “brid” instead of “bird,” we should correct the older student who confuses “me and her” with “she and I.”

Children need guidance, support, and, yes, correcting. That is the essence of being a student.

The debate over whether language is fluid and constantly adapting to change, or must be, for its own preservation, based on inviolable rules and conventions is not new, of course. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly almost two decades ago, Stanford University linguist Geoffrey Nunberg laid out the crux of the matter in an essay called, appropriately, “The Decline of Grammar.” He wrote that “if the rules of grammar are merely niceties of table manners, perhaps we should leave them to finishing schools.” As he concluded: “The decline in grammatical tradition reflects society’s belief that the mastery of grammar is largely a social accomplishment.”

This is a belief that is highly detrimental to our students. It suggests that grammar and formal rules of discourse are useful only as a means of condescending to those for whom such linguistic conventions remain elusive. It offers no hint that formal language is a necessary component of clear thought and precise logic, as well as a basic tool in the academic, political, and business worlds.

We are constantly reminded that our world is becoming smaller. Technology allows and dictates collaboration among peers separated by distance. Without a basic form of communication grounded in formal rules and boundaries, effective discourse would be lost. Those “dialectical differences” alone would result in misunderstandings and confusion. Students must be taught the language skills that will allow them to navigate the communication requirements of boardroom, classroom, neighborhood, workplace, and social encounter.

There could be not better illustration for news reports on the ‘dumbing down’ of our schools than our collective retreat from the formal rules of our language.

And what is wrong, moreover, with simply desiring to know all that one can about the proper use of English? There could be no better illustration for news reports on the “dumbing down” of our schools than our collective retreat from the formal rules and conventions of our language. These, admittedly, can be difficult to master. The task requires time and effort. Yet, in the end, that is part of becoming an educated citizen. We should not lower the bar to accommodate popular culture. We should instead raise the consciousness of our society.

This process begins in the classroom. From preschool to college, students must be well-versed in and aware of the need for a formal as well as an informal linguistic register. I don’t greet students with, “Waz up?” So they shouldn’t be allowed to tell me, “This sucks.” Slang and colloquialisms may have their place, but it’s wrong to let them permeate every facet of our society.

Even amid the discouraging evidence of a losing language battle, however, I have found an inkling of hope. In August, Ebony magazine ran an article called “How to Talk to the New Generation.” As I gazed at the article’s long list of unfamiliar terminology, wondering how many young people would know the difference between these words and phrases and the formal words and phrases they represented, it happened. Toward the end of the list was the word “vexed,” among the latest perfectly good English words to turn slang. I couldn’t help but smile when I read its “new” meaning. Vexed: very angry. Perhaps there is hope, after all.

Catherine A. Dietz teaches 6th grade English at a middle school in San Antonio.

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