Grammar boot camp

PENMAN - Butch Dalisay () - May 20, 2002 - 12:00am
We had an interesting workshop last week (I know, another one) where we Filipino teachers of English pondered the question of how best to improve our students’ grammar.

Everyone’s been saying how poor our students’ command of grammar has become in recent years – a situation which, with some justification, our people have expected a school like the University of the Philippines to remedy. I say "with some justification" because, in the eyes of the desperate, the buck has to stop somewhere, and it might as well be here; if a place like the UP can’t fix your kid’s grammar, who can and who will? On the other hand – and here comes the big "but" – no college in its right mind can guarantee that a semester or two of English will be enough to undo many years of substandard education and lack of reading (more on this, later).

We actually had a spirited debate in the university over whether what amounts to a remedial course in English had a place in the General Education curriculum, which the university very recently revised (or "revitalized," to use the administration’s term). Collegiate "GE," ideally, is pitched on a higher level, for loftier purposes than the mere transmission of skills. (Purposes like what, you ask? Well, like talking and arguing about ideas.)

Our department argued, however, that while that was theoretically true, the reality on the ground was that, without a firmer grounding in basic skills, like academic reading and writing, our college students (not to mention their teachers) were fated to have one hell of an awful time in their higher subjects. In the end – and thanks largely to enthusiastic support from the professional colleges – our viewpoint prevailed, and English 1 (Basic College English) was passed. Subsequently, over just a couple of weeks of on-line registration, nearly 1,200 incoming freshmen signed up for the new course – with more to enlist, I’m sure, come regular registration. There’s clearly a realization among students and their parents that they need help with their English, and it shows in the demand, which we’re scrambling to meet.

Teaching remedial English well is much more than a matter of finding instructors and classrooms, however. More basically, we need to ask how this situation came about and what we can do to set things right. First of all, we need to review our notions of "good" and "bad" English, and the concrete contexts that have given rise to them.

When we say that the English or the grammar of our kids is so bad, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t communicate; they almost certainly do, especially among themselves, if only in text lingo. It isn’t that they don’t speak English; they do, and in a way that achieves the basic purpose of every language, which is to convey meaning. Spoken language, however, can be very different from its written form, because writing very often takes place in a more formal context – a letter, a report, a term paper, things and situations that require us to assume a certain pose (and use a certain kind of language) if we want to be taken seriously.

This is why nearly everyone can talk and be understood, but far fewer can write and write well. Effective writing needs practice and familiarity with the codes and norms of language – or whatever society decides is "good" or "acceptable" language (meaning, language that conforms to prevailing social expectations and definitions). Conformity and uniformity make sure that everyone’s on the same page and understands words the exact same way; less confusion means more time for more productive activities than figuring out meanings.

That’s my two-minute, backyard explanation for why we need grammar (the rules and relationships that govern a language) and why we need to study it. Good grammar helps clarity of expression, and clear expressions make for smoother social and business transactions all around.

That’s also a long-winded way of saying that it isn’t us professional purveyors and professors of English who see an Eliza Doolittle in every Pinoy. I might be an impassioned if occasional crusader against atrocious language, but I’d be the last person to suggest that every Filipino should write and speak English like me or my departmental colleagues. Whatever for? The fact is that our people have gotten by very nicely in Filipino or the other Philippine languages for most of their needs, thank you, including the serious study of academic subjects.

When you look at it with a very dry eye, the demand for "good" English really comes from what we might call the pragmatists, who see English proficiency as our ticket to global markets, and the romantics, who remember how they had to diagram sentences and recite Shelley before running off to the soda fountain. I’m afraid that in our frustration, we might go overboard and mistake grammatical perfection for what’s been called communicative competence, which is a more complex and actually more useful concept.

At the workshop, I confessed to my co-teachers that – not being a language specialist – I wasn’t absolutely sure how best to address the "problem" of poor grammar among the young (not to mention a good number of the old). Being something of a romantic myself – well, a ruthless romantic – I wondered aloud if what we needed to set up was some kind of grammar boot camp like we all suffered through, diagramming, Harry Shaw, and all. Poet Jimmy Abad had a better idea, proposing a reading boot camp, whereby all freshmen would be made to read 10 books in English 1, on the eminently sensible theory that the best way to learn a language is to read it, and to read well.

We’ve decided on a mix of the two approaches. Dutiful soldiers that we are, we’ll be meeting those 1,200+ freshmen in June with a firm resolve to sort out their subject-verb agreement and their compound-complex sentences, sneaking in a dash of Dostoyevsky here and a snippet of Shakespeare there, while preparing them to write scorching essays on millenarian movements and Purchased Power Adjustments.

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I don’t usually reprint stuff from the Internet, but this one’s too good to pass up. It came from US-based Len Maranan through her London-based writer-dad Ed, who forwarded it to friends with a note asking Len: "Anak, how does one join the competition? I (& other twisted minds back home) have potentially hundreds to contribute.… Right now I’ve just thought of a very mild one: preditor —a fearsome blue- (or red) penciller (or someone who harasses sub-editors?)"

"Each year the Washington Post’s Style Invitational asks readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing only one letter and supply a new definition. Here are the 2001 winners:

Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

Hipatitis: Terminal coolness.

Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

Karmageddon: It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s like, a serious bummer.

Glibido: All talk and no action.

Dopeer Effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

And, the winner of the Washington Post’s Style Invitational, Ignoranus: A person who’s both stupid and an asshole.
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Finally, from "cool, sunny Madrid" comes this helpful correction from our friend Alice Sun about the Mactan "sutokil" I mentioned in a recent column. It isn’t verbal shorthand for "sugba, tuhog, kilaw" as I thought, but rather "sugba, tola, kilaw," tola meaning "cooking clams, mussels, fish, etc. in a little water and salt, with pieces of ginger." Thanks for the info, Alice!
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Send e-mail to Butch Dalisay at penmanila@yahoo.com..
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