It is perhaps unsurprising that reading and writing and grammar have all been taught at the same time. In many ways these tasks are interrelated together. Reading is one of the main ways that we gain information (and misinformation) about the world around us, and the raw material of research as well as evidence of great conversations that we might wish to participate in. Writing is how we participate in those conversations by forming our thoughts and feelings and expressing them in a way that they can influence how others think and feel. And grammar and language, quite often forgotten in this discussion, is the medium through which we understand what we read and in which we convey what we write in a matter that is hopefully intelligible. Each of these three areas presents areas of potential struggle but also of potential benefits. After all, improvement in one of these areas can lead to massive improvement in other areas as well.
During a period of a few months in early 2011, I had a job reading and scoring writing assessment papers for the state of New Jersey in a contract that they had with a Florida company which I worked for. During that job I would read hundreds of essays a day, and found that there were only a couple papers at most that were amazing and that the majority of papers by these high school juniors were competent but rather unspectacular. More troubling was the fact that there were people who had gone through twelve years of schooling and were unable to write coherent sentences, to put those sentences into paragraphs, and to combine those paragraphs together in a rhetorical argument. One cannot succeed at rhetoric, sadly, without having mastered both logic and grammar, and a great many people were taking this test (and no doubt many others) without having mastered the rudiments of the English language, which would make it difficult for them to either read or write at an acceptable level. And this is more than a problem just for schooling, but it is hard to succeed in life if one cannot read or convey one’s thoughts and feelings in a way that others can understand. Communication is above all else a practical skill in being able to relate to others and to make oneself heard and understood.
Frequently the act of learning other languages provides us with insight into the grammar of our own language. For example, it was in learning Spanish that I first became aware of the complexity within the tenses and moods of the English language, having been taught that English only has three tenses, past, present, and future, and realizing that on the contrary English has more subtlety and nuance than that in its tenses, but it requires more study to understand this, and this study typically comes from seeking to understand a foreign language where one has little choice but to try to memorize verb tables, at which point one is confronted by how to distinguish in the third person between genders, or how to deal with the troublesome second person plural that is vital in written communication to mark out discourse as being either private or public in nature but which appears to be quaint and backwards in contemporary oral communication in English and many other languages. Wrestling with grammar problems helps us to understand the issues that are faced by speakers and writers in seeking to frame a message to an audience and to sound intelligent and thus authoritative, so that one’s message will be respected.
Ideally, all aspects of language acquisition can be used in order to bolster each other. To the extent that we read a word, it is helpful to be a part of a community that speaks the word so that we may know how the word is pronounced, so that we sound intelligent when we use the word in conversation. Reading good writing helps us to understand not only the complexities of grammar and logic, but also allows us to build our own rhetorical skills as writers and speakers. Good literature is the fuel for emulation and mastery, after which we can develop our own style and approach that can stand toe to toe with the best of the masters from which we have learned. Similarly, the absence of this mastery can be crippling, as lacking a skill in formally understanding a language can make us unable to appreciate what makes some writing so good, and thus our ability to develop an appropriate personal style is hindered by our lack of reading comprehension which comes from a lack of solid language acquisition in the first place. And it is hard, as well as embarrassing, for people to try to shore up problems in understanding language and in being able to understand what others write and say while trying to maintain a public reputation as someone whose speech and writing is worthy of honor and respect. It is a shameful thing to admit that one does not understand and yet it is only from such an admission that someone can learn and grow and be taught, if out of time, to master in one’s adulthood that which the pert and clever child can take for granted. And yet if we learn foreign languages, we make that admission, though it is less shameful to have an ambition to understand other tongues after one has mastered one’s own. Moreover, it is the shame of having been thought to have rude and uncultured speech that leads us to seek to crown every dialect and every pidgin and every creole with the honored name of a literary language so that respect is given to the tongues which people speak and struggle to make themselves heard by others.