Lessons from a Spanish Class

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.

Sister Berenice and I

I am not a language expert, but an avid amateur, a hobbyist. I fell in love with grammar during my eight years at St. Mark’s Elementary School in Brooklyn, New York. All of the nuns there were grammar taskmistresses, but none more than a nun I will call Sister Mary Berenice, my seventh-grade teacher. As I recall it, we spent the entire school year of 1958–59 diagramming sentences.

Good old Sister Berenice. In addition to having an explosively short temper, a complexion that went from wan to fire-engine red in seconds, and a sneaky left–right combination, Sister Berenice was a diagramming champ; we (or those of us who embraced this odd pursuit) spent evenings dreaming up complicated sentences for her to diagram. She never faltered.

There followed four years of Latin at a Jesuit high school in New York City, with three years of ancient Greek and two of French marching close on Latin’s heels. I see now that it was in high school that the language bug drilled in and nested in my brain.

As detailed in the Who Am I? section of this blog, what started as an interest developed into a hobby, then a college major and graduate school program, and finally a career. It may also have saved my life.

How language ability saved my life and supported my nation’s war effort. When I was drafted out of graduate school and into the U.S. Army in 1969, my interest in languages, substantiated by whatever score I received on a placement exam called the “Army Language Aptitude Test,” spared me from assignment to the infantry (where I am told they used rifles) and diverted me into a military occupational specialty (MOS) of translator/interpreter of Vietnamese (where we used dictionaries). For everyone’s sake, I think this was a wise move on the part of the Pentagon.

What this meant was that, once I had completed basic training, the Army sent me to El Paso, Texas, to learn a highly militarized version of Vietnamese. After nine months doing that, I won an all-expense-paid vacation to Bien Hoa, Vietnam, where—with impeccable Army logic—I was immediately assigned to the motor pool to repair 2½-ton trucks (known as deuce-and-a-halves).

After a few months of this, my assignment was straightened out and I was permitted to exercise my halting Vietnamese in support of whatever we were doing there. I must admit that this language never really took; it has since abandoned me, and vice versa, entirely.

Since 1992, I have devoted my language skills to a language that I actually know, English. I am a freelance editor and technical writer working with my life and work partner Amy. We are co-owners of a professional editing company called AHEM Writing and Editing. You will find our web page at http://ahemwritingandediting.weebly.com.

Who Might Enjoy This Blog?

People who might enjoy participating in this blog include:

  • The curious. This includes native English speakers who are curious about language and/or grammar: what makes a sentence grammatical, what syntax is, the origin of odd words and expressions, why some people seem to be obsessed about “good grammar,” why people are judged by their grammar.
  • The hesitant. In this group are English speakers who may be reluctant to speak publicly because they are less than completely sure of the correctness of their words, phrases, and sentences. These are people who have doubts about their usage of English.
  • Language learners. This category includes native English speakers who are learning a language other than English and, because of their engagement with a different language, have to face for the first time the requirements, constraints, and vocabulary of grammar.
  • Writers. This includes writers who may have concerns about the correctness, sophistication, and effectiveness of their writing.
  • Hobbyists. In this group are people who simply love language and enjoy talking about, playing with, studying, and dealing with questions about language in general, the English language in particular, changes in English, the need for standards in English, the future of English, and similar topics.
  • Purists. This includes people who believe that the English language is endangered because current trends in language use appear to militate against what had previously been accepted as “proper” usage.
  • Grammar grouches. This category includes people with pet peeves about somewhat specialized or minuscule features of common English usage; they are irritated by such things as split infinitives (you have to always be vigilant), the misuse of apostrophes (or is it apostrophe’s?), the demise or misuse of the word whom (and, seriously, who can you ask about this?), the use of I instead of me after a preposition (just between you and I, this one really bugs me), and so on.
  • Professionals. In this group are people who make their living using words, crafting effective sentences, creating powerful and expressive paragraphs, and designing complete written or spoken works that rely on the careful use of English vocabulary, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and structures.

I have been, and am, a member of every one of the above categories. As noted elsewhere in this blog, I make my living from writing and editing, I worry about proper English usage, I am currently learning Spanish, I am ever curious about language, and I confess to being sometimes fussy about features of current English usage that I find annoying.

On the other hand, I try to be reasonable about evolution in our language. I accept that English has always been admirably generous in opening its doors and dictionaries to foreign words, new coinages, creative spellings, playful words, bent grammar, regionalisms and dialects, and virtually all other forms of linguistic development and accretion.


English is welcoming

What This Blog Is

Recreational space

This blog is a recreational space for the informal discussion of language.

This blog is intended to be not a classroom but a playground, in which I invite my readers (should I gain any) to play. My intent is to offer an interactive, informal space for discussing language (primarily the American English variety, but others are welcome too), including questions of grammar and recent linguistic trends and developments. Perhaps we can even come to a tentative agreement on some of the more vexatious issues facing careful users of English today.

I offer this as a place to discuss questions such as these:

  • Are split infinitives really all that bad?
  • Is there a reasonable alternative to the inelegant his or her construction in a culture rightly concerned about gender equality?
  • What is the best way to pronounce—in an English oral sentence—foreign words and phrases that have entered, or are entering, the English language? Is there a rule of thumb that prevents, on the one hand, a tone-deaf disrespect for other languages and, on the other, pedantry?
  • Should we simply give up on the word whom, and should we admit defeat when faced with the confusion surrounding the words whoever and whomever?
  • Is there a way to help people understand the use of apostrophes, quotation marks, and other threatened or abused marks of punctuation?

Maybe this will even be a place to go beyond words in isolation and to argue the relative merits of, say, cryptic vs. traditional American crosswords, or to converse about the differences between British and American detective stories, or to swap recommendations for interesting books (or blogs) to read.

In short, what this blog turns into some months out will be, I hope, a mutual project involving its readers and its primary author.