Most people think of language primarily as a means of communication. But before one can communicate clearly, one must first think clearly. It is language that makes clear thinking possible.
Language is the means by which one identifies and defines concepts clearly. Language enables one to distinguish between concepts possessing subtle differences and to integrate concepts possessing essential similarities, which can be just as subtle. Language makes it possible for one to clarify and to grasp conceptual hierarchies, to apprehend contextual limits and to perceive the universality of fundamental principles and, then, to apply them. As Edward Sapir put it: “The product [thought] grows … with the instrument [language].”
In short, language is, first and foremost, a tool of cognition.
If language is an instrument of thought, then grammar is certainly the central mechanism by which that instrument operates. Grammar allows one to use that tool precisely and effectively, thereby giving one the ability to think more clearly and, as a consequence, to communicate more effectively. Grammar does so by making one more cognizant of reality, i.e. by making one capable of objectivity.
Through grammar, for instance, one is made keenly aware of—and able to distinguish among the constituent parts in—simple and complex relationships by means of independent and subordinate clauses and by means of conjunctions and relative and associative pronouns. Through prepositions, one can more precisely distinguish between distance and location; between volume and mass; between time, speed and direction. If language is the camera through which the mind “sees” reality, then grammar is the lens of that camera.
Heretofore, educators have looked upon grammar as either a sort of Ten Commandments—rules written in the stone of tradition, to be blindly taught and obediently followed—or as a book on linguistic etiquette, whose contents are arbitrary but, nonetheless, which should be practiced on formal occasions.
Likewise, the teaching of grammar has followed one of those two perceptions, either pounded into the students head, permitting little genuine understanding or treated as discretional, something that students would pick up through mimicry, ultimately to be used only in formal written discourse.
The fact is grammar is an objective necessity, the goal of whose teaching is to train students to think with clarity and precision, so they can write with clarity and precision. Given the complexity of our modern, technological and scientific society—where the price of a misunderstanding can result in injury or death—the achievement of such a goal, quite practically, becomes a matter of survival. That is the “real life” goal of teaching grammar.
Many would disagree, of course, with this assessment. Research dating back to 1962 indicates that, according to Dr. Anthony Petrosky, “no empirical evidence exists for teaching grammar for any purpose.” Yet, there is research dating from the 1920’s & 30’s, referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which indicates that language may shape thought. Roger Brown of Harvard University has written that some linguists and psycholinguists believe “Sapir-Whorf … has been shown to be incorrect. In fact, it has not been shown to be incorrect and, indeed, has scarcely been studied in any adequate way.”
Also relevant is a comment by D. I. Slobin, quoted in Alfred Bloom’s Psycholinguistics, that “it would be dangerous to forget that languages … may indeed have important effects on what people will believe and what they will do.” If language does, indeed, shape thought and beliefs, then by making language more precise, so does grammar. A student who is not proficient in the use of proper grammar would not be proficient in the use of language. Such a student would not only be incapable of precision in writing, he would be incapable of precision in reasoning.
Further research conducted in 1981 bears this out. Sara Nerlove, then of Carnegie Mellon, and Eleanor Wilson Orr—researching the effects of Black English Vernacular on mathematical comprehension in high school students—concluded that “the way a BEV speaker may understand certain Standard English expressions of quantitative relations can affect his or her understanding of those relations” (Twice As Less). The Standard English expressions indicated were prepositions of location, distance, volume, mass, speed, direction and time; and relative and associative pronouns in the context of mathematical problems.
Nerlove and Orr found, in short, that such students could not grasp certain aspects of mathematics and certain scientific facts—such as the relationship of the volume of gas to the mass of gas molecules—because of their lack of grammatical understanding.
Neither the theories nor the research mentioned above, which examine the relationship between thought and grammar, have been, to my knowledge, the subject of any past or current serious educational research.
In light of such theories and research, one can rightfully conclude that English is the fundamental subject upon which depends the success or failure in all other subjects. The student’s ability to differentiate between an almost endless number of concepts and of conceptual relationships, to isolate that which is significant from that which is incidental, to think in principles—whether in history or anthropology, philosophy or physics, music or mathematics—depends on the student’s understanding of grammatical principles.
It is critical, then, that students be taught such principles and that such teaching be neither dogmatic nor arbitrary. Students must understand such principles, not merely parrot them; and they must use them consistently, not merely in formal discourse or to pass particular standardized exams. Language is the means to clear thinking in any field of endeavor; and grammar is the key to language.
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