The limits of our language

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Curricular revisions in the area of religious instruction in South African schools have been the subject of a previous column, in which I argued that political expediency could compromise Constitutional freedoms, as well as handicap the development of a citizenry which is capable of significant intellectual engagement with policy. A related trend, with the same negative consequences, can also be observed in our universities. More recently, the teaching of the most basic foundation of language – grammar – is being threatened. And so, another potential blow is landed against clarity of thought and expression.

I speak of the recent leak of the National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement for Grades 10 to 12 for English Home Language, wherein it is revealed that grammar will no longer be examined in a separate paper. While the basic education ministry has been quick to reassure us that this does not mean grammar will not be taught, this claim is difficult to reconcile with the available facts. Furthermore, the mere decision to not give grammar focused attention could be said to be problematic, in that the subject is perhaps both too technical, and too important, to be integrated into language teaching more generally.

According to Granville Whittle, a spokesperson for the ministry of basic education, eliminating the separate examination paper focusing on grammar does not mean that the subject will not be taught. Instead, grammar will be taught through integration into the reading and writing components of language instruction and examination, allowing for grammar to be taught “in context”.

The Star has seen a copy of the Policy Statement, and tells us “No teaching time is being allocated to the language component, and while the document gives a list of grammar items in an appendix, it states: ‘Teachers do not have to teach all or any of it. It is a reference list only, and the needs of the class must dictate what is being taught.’

On page 31 it gives the rationale for this by saying that by Grade 10, pupils should be familiar with the basics of grammar, parts of speech, rules of concord, use of tense, auxiliaries and modals, and sentence structures. ‘Discreet, isolated lessons of grammar should not now be part of the teaching time’”.

And while it may be true, as Whittle claims, that eliminating separate grammar instruction is the international trend, the fact remains that South Africa is hardly typical of international norms in having eleven official languages. This raises the question of whether this trend is appropriate to our context, where a significant proportion of schoolchildren will learn a home language that won’t often be encountered in their eventual workplaces. So, while linguistic competence in one’s home language can perhaps be achieved without separate grammar instruction, it’s less clear that this is possible when learning a second (or even third) language.

Furthermore, linguistic competence might not be what we should be aiming for. For us to have any chance of being more than average or competent – as individuals as well as a nation – we need to increase the number of people who are able to critically engage with the world around them. More to the point, we need people who are able to express their critical opinions in ways that are compelling and persuasive. This requires a significant command of language, not simply the ability to communicate effectively.

Wittgenstein pointed out that there is a logical structure to language, and that this structure constrains what can be said meaningfully. What can be said influences what can be thought, leading to his well-known claim that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. Besides the obvious and (sometimes) easy to comprehend features of our environments, there is much that is subtle, and which requires an equally subtle understanding – and then an equally subtle language with which to communicate what one understands, and fails to understand.

Grammar is then part of the process of learning mastery of language, expression, and thought. It is the logic that underpins the effectiveness or absence thereof of the noises we make at each other, and the characters we draw on a page. One simple case in which this is clear is in rhetoric, and the impression made on the audience through the linguistic choices we make.

Consider the active versus the passive voice, and the difference between sentences like “President Thabo Mbeki yesterday fired his deputy president, Jacob Zuma, who was implicated in a corruption scandal” and “deputy president Jacob Zuma, who was implicated in a corruption scandal, was yesterday fired by President Thabo Mbeki”. The former example foregrounds Mbeki, which aids in creating the impression that he is somehow more responsible than in the latter example, which highlights Zuma’s alleged corruption.

These sorts of choices are the ones made not only by journalists and editors, but by all of us in describing the world around us. Not only that – we also brand ourselves through how we speak and write. We give other people information as to our thoughts and abilities, and thus shape what they think we are capable of, and how they should interpret our words and actions.

Most worryingly, perhaps, is our capacity for being misled once we no longer possess the ability to interrogate statements made by others, and where all language becomes vague or bland – and we simply stop paying attention. Spokesperson Whittle is also quoted as saying that “some teachers feel you still need to teach grammar separately and we will look at this”. Also, even though the document in question is marked as a final draft, it’s not yet clear that this decision is finalised.

Before it is – assuming that it’s not too late – one can only hope that someone points the relevant decision-makers to George Orwell’s essay on “Politics and the English Language”. In that essay from 1946, Orwell argues that bad prose and oppressive ideology are frequent companions. In the context of a political discourse where it seems to matter less and less what people say (Manyi), but instead who is allowed to speak (as in Mantashe’s scolding of Manuel for acting like a “free agent”), perhaps others should read it too. One paragraph reads as follows:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

This is the end point of not paying attention to language – we name things, and construct sentences around those names, without calling up those mental pictures. And unless we conjure up those mental images and evaluate alternatives to them, it might well end up being the case that we lose the ability to do so.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.