The genesis of this project was a Beginning Spanish course that I am taking at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts. This is an excellent course filled with interesting students who are all trying hard to learn a new language as adults, some taking Spanish for the first time, and others returning for a second try after a year or two of study in high school.
For some of my classmates, I have noticed, the natural difficulty of learning a new language has been exacerbated by a shortage of explicit experience with grammar—not just in Spanish, but in English too. Many of them have never had to use or understand terms like mood, tense, case, voice, indicative, infinitive, gerund, participle, subject, predicate, appositive, direct object, indirect object, reflexive, and so on—the language of grammar.
Now, the students in this class are without exception hard-working, intelligent, motivated, ambitious, and interesting persons who have a sincere interest in learning Spanish. By and large they are also young—in every case younger than I, mostly by decades. In confronting Spanish (for most of them their first foreign language), they are experiencing first-hand, without necessarily knowing it, the absence of the vocabulary and concepts of grammar, which are essential tools for understanding how languages work.
The fact is that most elementary, middle, and high schools in the United States today provide little or no direct instruction in English grammar. For this reason, my classmates have never in any of their prior schooling had anything but a mild exposure to grammar—and certainly not the lethal dose that I got during the antique form of primary education to which I was subjected. As a result, they find themselves with no convenient way—no vocabulary—to discuss grammatical concepts. I believe that this makes it harder for them to grasp, study, and master their new language.
A cost–benefit analysis. I found myself thinking that if these students had been force-fed English grammar the way I was by the good nuns in my past, way back in the twentieth century, they would perhaps be better prepared for the language learning task. Personally, every time I face the daunting task of learning a new language, I thank the lengthy grammar drills that were forced on me when I was in elementary school (which was actually called grammar school in that era—for good reason).
I don’t mean to imply that the strict grammar regimen that I experienced was an unalloyed blessing; I am aware that it came at a price. As I speak with my classmates, I find among them an impressive history of exposure to many subjects and disciplines that I never received. I am left with the feeling that if I had taken as many classes in art, music, science, physical education, and higher math as these students have taken in their schooling, I would probably be more aesthetic, stronger, smarter, and more scientifically clever than I am. But these topics were not a significant part of my early education. In fact, I have had to play catch-up on all of them. Except physical education, which I may get to some day.
And it was this realization in my Spanish class that led directly to my decision to create a blog about language, where grammatical terms and concepts can roam free and be discussed without fear or favor; where my readers and I can discuss with humor and kindness the elements of both elegant and awkward English sentences; where the parts of speech can come out of the closet and thrive; and where students learning a new language can find an explanation of the grammatical terms that they are meeting for the first time, and can ask questions and receive direct answers about them.
The next post, and many posts thereafter, will be devoted to an exploration of grammar, starting with a discussion of the parts of speech.