Grammar as a liberal art

Note: I am very ignorant about grammar, language, language teaching, language learning, Latin, and everything else I’ve been writing about lately, and am simply thinking aloud. Nothing new there.

I was writing this afternoon about my dissatisfactions with teaching, and came upon the thought: since students have to learn English, surely it’s possible to teach them something more interesting and important (in a theoretical sort of way — I do know that it’s very practical) in the process. I remembered that grammar is considered a liberal art, and looked up grammar as a liberal art on Google. The most interesting essay I found was Dorothy Sayers on the Trivium, which I had read at some point and then forgotten. As an amateur English teacher I was especially struck by this:

Let us begin, then, with Grammar. This, in practice, means the grammar of some language in particular; and it must be an inflected language. The grammatical structure of an uninflected language is far too analytical to be tackled by any one without previous practice in Dialectic. Moreover, the inflected languages interpret the uninflected, whereas the uninflected are of little use in interpreting the inflected. […]

Those whose pedantic preference for a living language persuades them to deprive their pupils of all these advantages might substitute Russian, whose grammar is still more primitive. Russian is, of course, helpful with the other Slav dialects. There is something also to be said for Classical Greek. But my own choice is Latin.

I’m not about to try convincing anyone to have their children take classes in Latin (or even Russian) rather than English, for political and economic reasons, but English, as a mostly uninflected language, does present certain difficulties not to be encountered in Latin, and more confusing possibilities. It may be partly for linguistic reasons that Romans did learn Latin grammar, whereas native English speakers don’t learn our own grammar if we can help it. I’m not sure what she means about the inflected languages interpreting the uninflected, but not the other way ‘round.

We are, as it happens, attempting to teach English in elementary school — in fact, that’s our only official responsibility as volunteers here — and it is, for me at least, a little odd, which is why I was looking up grammar in education to begin with. I’m often frustrated, both because language classes have a bit of an odd status; they’re required and considered important, but only 80 – 120 minutes a week are spent on them, spread out over 6 or 12 years; but it seems that there is no plan that at any point in those 12 years students might be liberated from the textbooks, which are rather dull, to read real books or even essays found in the wild, outside the school books. Meanwhile, in America most students admittedly don’t learn to actually speak the language they study, unless their family speaks it at home, but seem to take something rather more like language appreciation courses, where they bake baklava, recite short poems, construct Day of the Dead shrines, make posters, and learn about culture and holidays — especially holidays. which we might do more in my classes, but I think I’ve been a bit put off that by things like laking a homeroom and not having much time or any resources.

All of which is to say — as is most often the case when I try teaching, I’m not entirely confident in what I’m trying to do, because the ability to talk to tourists, practical as it may be, is not very interesting to me, and I’m not at my best as either a student or teacher while concentrating on the practical. I would much rather, and would do a much better job, teaching language as a liberal art rather than language as “a thing you need because it will be on the exam.”


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