There were many interesting comments on my recent post "Putting grammar back in grammar schools: A modest proposal". I wasn't able to participate in the discussion, due to competition from travel, holiday activities, fall semester grading, conference deadline, a wedding, …, so today I'll take up one or two of the points that were raised.
First, let me say that Dick Hudson has kindly agreed to write a guest post about grammar teaching in the UK, and educational linguistics in general, expanding on his comment. In what follows, I'll make a few observations of my own about the motivations for putting grammar — and linguistic analysis in general — into the school curriculum; about ways and means for moving towards this goal in the U.S.; and about what skills and concepts I had in mind.
Motivations and justifications were explicitly not the focus of my earlier post, whose goal was simply to point out the existence and possible relevance of a prestigious, widely accepted, well documented, and durable standard for grammatical description. My earlier post also didn't say anything about how to package these ideas for presentation to students at different levels — the existing technical literature is no more suitable for grammar-school usage than recent issues of Cell or Physical Review Letters would be as reading material in elementary-school science classrooms. And the way that I introduced the topic left me open to the misunderstanding that the main issue is terminology for parts of speech, rather than analysis of the structure and meaning of sentences.
Quite a few commenters asked whether grammar instruction would "be sufficient to produce high school graduates capable of composing a cogent paragraph made up of more or less grammatical sentences". The relevance of grammar instruction to second-language teaching and learning also came up. These are interesting and relevant questions, but I feel that it would be a mistake to make them the center of the discussion. We don't put chemistry into the school curriculum because it will make students better cooks, or even because it might make them better doctors, much less because we need a relatively small number of professional chemists. We believe (I hope) that a basic understanding of atoms and molecules is knowledge that every citizen of the modern world should have.
I feel that the arguments for grammar in the school curriculum — and for linguistic analysis more broadly — ought to be similar. A basic understanding of how language works should be part of what every educated person knows. And there are many professions where a more-than-basic understanding is worthwhile, just as pharmacists and farmers need quite a bit of advanced practical chemistry to do their jobs well.
Lane asked some pointed and relevant questions:
How does this idea get transmitted to the decision-makers that matter? English teachers are mostly English majors. They learn the analysis of literature, and virtually nothing about the analysis of grammar. (If they were educated after 1970 or so, they also learn a lot of theory that has much less to do with the analysis of grammar than what's going on at Computer Science does.)
Every English graduate should understand the English language, especially given how many will become not only teachers but editors, proofreaders, and other language-types. They all need at least one chunky course in English syntax. But my understanding is that this is optional, and not popular, among English department requirements.
Doesn't the MLA conference bring together linguists and literature department teachers? Why not present this there? It would need a thoroughgoing demolition of the traditional and broken grammatical categories for starters, and a softly-softly introduction to concepts like "determiner" in the second half.
I'd love to see something like this happen. But it would take decades to train the old bad habits out of the system…
I think he's right to assume that change probably needs to percolate downwards from the university level, and to observe that the lack of analytic training of any sort in most English departments is a problem.
Others may have ideas about how to fix this. But at least in the U.S., my suggestion would be to turn away from English departments, and pursue a plan based on an alliance of linguists with people in computer science, psychology, statistics, medicine, law, sociology, business, etc., who increasingly see linguistic analysis (e.g. in the form of "text mining" or "text analytics") as an interesting object of study in itself, and as a means to enable research on other (applied or fundamental) topics. This alliance — which eventually might even include some people from Digital Humanities — is a plausible basis for college-level courses in "grammar" as practical text analysis.
Such courses would NOT be focused on parsing algorithms or other NLP techniques as such, but rather on the nature of the information that NLP algorithms are meant to compute. Compare standard statistics courses, which (at an elementary level) introduce concepts like significance tests without explaining what statistics programs really do to calculate them, or (at a more advanced level) discuss generalized linear models or mixed-effects regression without going into detail about the numerical optimization techniques used to estimate their parameters.
This path does depend on an argument about the practical value of grammatical analysis (broadly construed). But it's an argument that's already been won. And the academic customers for this general style of analysis are numerous and diverse enough, in principle, to motivate and support a modern version of the old-fashioned idea that grammar (and logic and rhetoric :-)) should be for everyone.