How can linguistics help teachers? Episode 8

Language is ‘the Mount Everest of subjects’, according to linguistics expert Professor David Crystal (A Little Book of Language, p253). It runs right through our experience as humans, and is naturally cross-curricular. So, Cate asks, what if we put linguistics at the heart of our school curriculum? How could we introduce linguistics in schools and would it help teachers with teaching literacy, or is ‘linguistics’ too abstract for children?

Babies are rap poets from birth

Our instinct to play with language is universal, according to Professor Crystal, and playing is one of the main drivers for learning language in babies. In the podcast he explains that we have three main drivers: understanding, identity and playfulness. The instinct is there from birth, and continues into childhood, with children delighting in word play and having fun with language. So what goes wrong? And can linguistics help us retain this playfulness as we grow?

What grammar should we teach?

Drawing circles around adjectives in school doesn’t necessarily translate into children including more adjectives in their writing. David explains how we need to mirror the children’s language acquisition process when teaching them how to do better writing. We must ‘begin at the beginning,’ and with children this means letting them hear the language we expect them to use first, then giving them time to speak it and have fun with it. Children all have ‘an instinct for eloquence’ and enjoy retelling stories. Do we give them enough time to go through this process of listening, speaking, and reading, before expecting them to use new structures in their writing?

With grammar, jumping straight to the cold intellectual dissection and analysis of words doesn’t mean very much without context and passion. Yes, children need to know the rules but ‘it’s the breaking of rules that’s the fun bit,’ David explains. And what about the dreaded fronted adverbials, I wonder? You’ll have to listen to hear what he has to say about those.

It’s the breaking of rules that’s the fun bit

David Crystal on grammar
Teenage linguistics desk with mobile, pen, and book
What is the future of language as technology changes?
Image credit: Tamarcus Brown

The future of language

In the fast-paced world of modern technology, how is human communication changing? Text messaging and ‘text speak’ have had some bad press, but should we really be worried about our teens texting? In fact, as David explains, the fashion for ‘text speak’ peaked around 2009 and has already died out, with adolescents distancing themselves from it. Why is that? And what of emojis? Listen to hear the discussion about teenagers and their written communication, and what teachers should be doing about it (if anything).

The best texters are the best spellers

David Crystal on ‘text speak’

With all the advances in technology and more opportunities than ever to write, such as blogs, texting, and social media platforms, what role does the teacher have in helping students navigate their way to clear communication? The discussion turns to ‘appropriateness’ versus ‘correctness’, and ideas for classroom practice to encourage children to know what is appropriate for different occasions. It is about building an effective ‘linguistic wardrobe’, as David’s metaphor goes.

Teacher training in linguistics

A common theme emerges when David has spoken to teachers, who often tell him, ‘I have to teach grammar. Where do I start?’ In this podcast, David advocates following the children’s process of language acquisition when studying grammar. ‘How do one year olds do it? You can learn about grammar by following the way they do it, bit by bit.’ So what of the traditional approach of ‘subject-verb-object’ and the naming of parts? Is this approach, in fact, pointless? David argues that yes, it is pointless to approach grammar as separate from meaning.

Grammar has no purpose without reference to meaning

David Crystal on teaching grammar

The exciting thing about grammar, it turns out, is all the places you can go to with it. A bit like driving a car, and David explains why.

Cate and David Crystal at the launch of the LASER initiative at the British Academy.

A different mindset is needed to put language back in the centre of the curriculum, and to put children in the driving seat with their own language acquisition. It’s hard to predict the future of language, but I’d say that with this kind of approach, children might feel more empowered and excited about words and what they can do with them.

Listen to Episode 8 of The Language Revolution Podcast with David Crystal below or on iTunes.

And if you’d like to hear David discussing language and accents with his son, actor Ben Crystal, head over to Episode 7 afterwards.