AT THE SAME time that the stock of grammar is rising, foreign languages are being dragged kicking and screaming towards extinction.
Take-up at GCSE and A-level is in decline, exam boards are discontinuing even mainstream options, and university departments are closing down. The feeling is that we need to get back to basics and can no longer afford the decadent luxuries of café au lait and croissants. It’s hard enough getting to grips with English, so the narrative goes, without all those pesky foreign languages invading our schools and using up our brain cells.
What the government and other proponents of a keener focus on spelling, punctuation and grammar have forgotten is that getting to know how grammar works is also a major part of learning foreign languages. What’s more, they have failed to notice that our understanding of English grammar can be greatly enhanced by knowing another language – and that understanding a foreign set of grammatical conventions can give us fresh perspective on how we use and talk about the conventions of our own language. Rather than separating the two subjects, we should bring them together for the educational benefit of our pupils.
The linguist Noam Chomsky proposes that we are hard-wired with the capacity for grammar. We all use grammar every single day of our lives; if we didn’t already “know” grammar, then we wouldn’t be able to speak, let alone write. So it might be argued that the way we speak our native language is already right, irrespective of any formal rules defined after the fact.
Clarity and perspective
So, what children are learning at school is not so much grammar itself, but how to talk about grammar, how to articulate our understanding and become conversant in the meta-language of grammatical discourse.
Children struggle with this process. There is a simple reason why: we find it difficult to “see” the grammar of our own language. We’re too close, it’s too familiar and we know it too well. Learning a new language gets rid of that familiarity and enables us to approach grammar with greater clarity and perspective.
One of the benefits of foreign-language learning is a stronger grasp of parts of speech. The concept of grammatical gender focuses attention on nouns. The need for grammatical agreement reinforces our perception of articles and adjectives as subordinate to the subject and syntactically interdependent. The precise information conveyed by adjectival endings may allow for the suppression of the noun altogether, creating a poetic economy of expression. For example: “un viejo” or “las viejas”, rather than “an old man” or “the old women”.
In verb conjugation (a stricter discipline in Latin languages), the uniqueness of each grammatical person initially feels like an obstacle. English − where the only variation is the third-person singular − seems so much easier. But this lack of specificity requires the inclusion of a grammatical subject, whether noun or pronoun. So perhaps English is really more difficult, using two words rather than one, as in “they speak” instead of the Spanish “hablan”.
We might also note that in both languages “to be” is irregular and similarly “invisible”, which means that children fail to spot it as a verb, let alone the connections between “ser” and “soy/eres/es” or “to be” and “am/are/is”. In English, as in Spanish, pupils will discover that there are “being” as well as “doing” words, both regular and irregular.
‘We have the ears enormous’
I believe that MFL is the most efficient and imaginative means of cultivating grammatical expertise. There’s built-in entertainment value, from humour when teaching word order and use of the definite article (“we have the ears enormous”, anyone?) to the enjoyment of literature.
There are almost infinite practical applications of being able to speak and write another language, from business and innovation to friendship and romance. And while you’re at it, you can become a better, more empathetic citizen of Europe, or, indeed, the world.
Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist @drheathermartin