Essays on English in Japan

Thinking, not Grammar-izing

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In memory of John Scotus Erigena

Inside of classrooms (and out), we should always try to say something true. If I am a teacher, and I say, "I am a banker," it's pretty ridiculous. If we learn a little grammar and a few vocabulary words, we know how to say things like, "On my summer vacation, I robbed a bank," or "I work as a brain surgeon part-time. It pays pretty well. " But, what is the point of making untrue sentences, I always wonder? The world has enough falsity and untruth already. Why make more? Yet, English textbooks are filled with this kind of exercise.


Sometimes, English classes create situations to practice, so we can pretend, of course. Role-playing, though, still demands true sentences within that situation. If we pretend to be a student making an apology, then the sentences in that drama need to be a real apology there. Truth is always part of why we learn languages, even if we are just playing around in class by pretending to order a hamburger or argue with our parents. We have to think in a real, or virtually real, situation, even if the "truth" is a little bit fictional.

Thinking, though, can get you in trouble! A famous teacher named John Scotus Erigena taught Latin, philosophy and religion around 850 AD. He was famous for his nonconformity to the rigid beliefs of the Church, which was very powerful in Europe at that time. The church authorities condemned his writings, so he had to keep moving from city to city to find a place to teach. Finally, though, because he always tried to make his students think in different ways on difficult subjects, his students one day had enough and stabbed him to death with their pens! Pens were very sharp in those days! Most students then, like now, just wanted to memorize Latin grammar and recite the prayers and accepted teachings and not think too much. So, I dedicate this essay to his memory and hope that never happens to me! (These days, maybe students would use their electronic dictionaries instead of their pens.)

What Erigena's students wanted was to not be forced to think, but instead to do what I call "grammar-ize." Grammar-izing means doing the grammar correctly, but not creating a real thought. It is hollow language, without meaning, without truth, without reality. When we grammar-ize, we can get the grammar correct ("I am a rock star!") but not make a truthful sentence (of course, I am NOT really a rock star, or not yet anyway, maybe in the future?). Knowing a language means being able to do much more than just grammar-ize.

Grammar-izing can occur in classes and textbooks, and it is very addictive. It is even, at times, kind of fun. We can move words around, change the verb, add an adverb or adjective or two, and kind of stir things around in a sentence. No harm done. Nothing bad happens. However, in many English classes, nothing good ever happens either. It is all just grammar-izing. The language never gets connected to reality. Textbooks, tests, practice drills and exercise books never finally get to the thinking stage at all!

A little grammar-zing is OK in the short run, and can help establish patterns, but without thinking, it never lasts long. It is easy to forget very quickly after grammar-izing. In the classroom, it is hard to create real situations that demand real thinking, but stories or mini-dramas can help a lot. It's interesting to imagine being in London or New York or Sydney, forces students to begin to think. After practicing this pseudo-reality, though, students need activities where they have to really think. If you simply fill in the blanks with grammatically correct answers, but never create a really true sentence, the important part is missing. Grammar-ized language without thinking is meaningless, hollow, weak, and soon forgotten.

Many teachers and students, too, feel that school is not really real, but just a place to practice. Erigena disagreed, and so do I. When we read, we have to think in order to understand. When we speak or write, we have to think in order to say something important. Thinking in language connects us to the world. If I say, "I am a teacher!" then I am connected to a real job in the real world. It's true in the world, not just correct grammar on the page.

It sometimes can take a long time to learn how to think in language, so it's best to start early. One of my friends from college was fantastic at learning languages. He knew Turkish, French, Spanish and English fluently by the time he was 18. In his 20s, he added Portuguese, Hebrew and a little Greek. He was good at plowing through the textbooks, but he didn't always think in those languages. He was kind of a grammatical genius, but for him language was no different from doing mathematics, which is the subject he later became a professor of.

Fortunately, little by little, over the years, he turned his languages into thinking. He studied in America, married a woman who spoke Spanish, and started to write stories and essays in different languages and publish translations. He finally learned to think in English, Spanish and French, as well as his native Turkish, but not until many years after he had learned the grammar. He could have started thinking earlier, maybe and all that non-thinking time became a bit of a regret.

Like my friend and Erigena's students, many people are terrified of thinking in another language. Maybe they are worried it will change them forever. Maybe they are afraid of becoming un-Japanese, or losing themselves or thinking something dangerous. If we only grammar-ize, we get stuck at the sentence structure level and never develop any further. Thinking in language moves us forward. It is a little scary, but it's also exhilarating. Our brains never really stop mulling things over, even when we are sleeping or just daydreaming. We are always thinking and thinking. It never stops. All language learning activities should include thinking because the basic nature of language and the basic nature of people IS to think.

Language is a tool for thinking and tool to make other tools, like essays and books and speeches, which become larger tools for thinking in an endless cycle. Thinking and language should never be separated, excepted maybe by grammar researchers. For most of us, though, thinking is the electricity that jolts language into connecting to the world in interesting and exciting ways.

 

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Michael is currently teaching at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan, in the American Literature section of the English Department. More information in the About Me page.