Building Language

The importance of building language on secure foundations.

Occasionally, my writing background sees me called upon to tutor Higher English pupils, and I have to confess to feeling ever so slightly nervous about the lack of grammatical knowledge demonstrated by many of these youngsters. It appears that during the early years of secondary school they forget virtually every last grammar rule diligently drummed into them by their primary school teachers. Not even 50% of the 14 to 16-year-olds I’ve worked with recently were confident what a noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition or conjunction was at their first lesson. In fact, the majority could not correctly identify more than a couple of these terms.

Given that these elements are fundamental to an appreciation of how language fits together, it was scarcely surprising that these teenagers were finding it hard to write insightfully about the relative merits of the texts they were being asked to criticise. If you don’t know the correct way to construct a sentence properly yourself, it’s not going to be easy to de-construct it for the purpose of analysing how proficient the writer has been at his or her craft.

Lack of grammar is only one aspect of the fundamental malaise that is striking at the very heart of (native and modern) language learning. A dearth (needless to say, not one of last year’s tutees knew what that meant) of vocabulary also hinders young people in achieving good results in a subject that is, after all, their mother tongue. Unfortunately, this issue is hardly likely to be resolved in a matter of days or even weeks, especially when many teenagers communicate via Twitter. This micro-version of social media has turned the paring of sentences and chopping of words (necessary to achieve the mandatory 140 characters) into an art form. I should clarify that Twitter is not all bad, of course; after all, it does involve careful selection of words and creative use of language. However, it most certainly discourages the use of high-register, polysyllabic words which can greatly enhance the quality of formal written texts.

The problem with improving vocabulary is that it is a lengthy and ongoing process – like fitness, it has to be worked at, and it has to be worked at regularly. For some strange reason, we humans tend to assume that while it’s necessary to sit and learn new words if we want to master a foreign language such as French or Spanish, new English words on the other hand will somehow drop from the skies into our waiting minds without the least effort on our part… Unfortunately, of course, it doesn’t quite work like that! Even now, at the grand old age of nearly 50, I openly confess to following the Oxford English dictionary’s Word of the Day on Twitter and having the Wordsmith A.Word.A.Day emailed to my inbox. Moreover, I hope to be doing so for many years to come.

Some of my tutees – especially (and this is in no way intended as a sexist remark) the boys – readily admit to reading nothing other than what they “have to” read for school. With this in mind, I encourage (all right, I nag!) all my pupils to read anything and everything – books, poetry, instruction manuals for gadgets, plays, newspaper headlines, controversial columns in magazines, sports reports, signs on buses, menus, adverts, etc.

Why is that worth doing, you might ask (and many 16-year-old boys certainly do…), especially if you have no intention of using English again when you leave school? Stop right there! That is precisely the point I’m making. Can you really claim that you are never going to use English again when you leave school? Not ever…?

Of course you can’t, because the truth is that no matter which career path you end up following, you will almost certainly be asked to produce an essay, a report or a presentation at some point. Through observing other people’s writing and identifying what is done badly or well by others, we can all learn how to write better ourselves. Analysing the grammar, the style, the tone of voice and the different literary devices used by another writer trains our brains to be sensitive to what makes a piece of writing successful. Once you have you have learned to identify the factors that make a piece of writing more effective and more interesting for the reader (in this case, you!), the easier it will be for you to apply this knowledge to your own writing.

If, however, despite your best attempts to grapple with the minutiae of English grammar and syntax, you still approach writing presentations, reports or promotional materials with a feeling of impending doom and despair, have no fear: that’s why professional copywriters were invented!