Monday, January 11, 2010

Clouds got in the way

Clouds over Larrikin's End by Pants

The Australian newspaper today contains two speculative pieces projecting dire future consequences for the English language if the quality of its learning continues to decline at its present pace. Some of us have been griping about this for years. A system is only as good as its standards. Oddly, educationalists don't share the same definition of 'quality' as the rest of us poor sods who are battling to maintain our own command of the language without the support of common usage. Components and their contexts - the relationship that makes any system work - don't really come into their thinking. Quality in the educational sphere is perceived as an entirely experiential and personal thing that is somehow absorbed by osmosis. Having dispensed with the bothersome grammar that helped us make sense of what other people were trying to tell us, the teaching of English has come to involve little else but the memorising of a diminishing number of 'key' words.

In this article, originating in the Sunday Times (London) a claim is made by Britain's inaugural 'children's communication tsar' (they really do have a tsar for everything), that British teenagers have an average active vocabulary of a mere 800 words. The claim is refuted by Linguistics professor David Crystal of Bangor University who says, 'the issue is that people object to kids having a vocabulary for hip-hop and not for politics'. Seems plausible. No teenager wants a protracted conversation with an adult if it can possibly be avoided and belligerent monosyllabism is a sure-fire way to achieve that end. Let's hope that's what it is and not an invidious failing by an entire generation to pass on a serviceable set of base knowledge.

But a priori evidence that the language is deteriorating amongst native English speakers is inescapable. My own recent educational experience has included such howlers as 'principals of design', 'complimentary colours', 'avante gard' and 'art works' - all scribed by university-educated teachers of advanced years who should have known better. One of my fellow students, aged fifteen, made a series of paintings containing text. There were two basic spelling errors. None of the teachers pointed that out to him. I did, just before they were to be exhibited. The timing was n't brilliant but I felt he ought to know and it was clear no one else was going to say anything. He was upset and wanted to correct the mistakes. It was mean and condescending of teachers not to at least find out if the misspellings were intentional. They just assumed it was none of their business, I guess.

Dan Ryan argues in this piece for a return to a classical educational repertoire including Greek and Latin. I'm all in favour of Latin. With a good command of Latin, you can practically speak Italian. But there is one small flaw - who is going to teach it? There have been two generations of teachers since Latin was last taught in schools. I'd be satisfied with the reintroduction of the concept of sentences needing a verb to be valid. Oh, and some basic logic wouldn't go amiss either.

It seems odd that in an era when the English language has universal application as the lingua franca of business, politics and the internet, that its skill level amongst its native speakers is in such sharp decline. But that's education for you. It's almost as if educationalists study forecast data and then choose the opposite strategy from the one indicated. In an age when everyone now types for a living, no one is taught to touch type. Work that one out. I heard someone from a Melbourne-based props company on the radio the other day bemoaning the demise of puppetry and ceramics in arts schools at precisely the moment when film animation is storming into a dominant position in the entertainment industry and let's not even get into the untimely deletion of drawing from arts curricula.

Well, as my mate Virgil said in the pub the other day, 'durate et vosmet rebus servate secundis'.