The devil is in the details

In high school I was friends with a couple of Cuban girls. They were both native Spanish speakers (and taught me obscenities in their native tongue), yet I was shocked to learn that they were both struggling desperately in their Spanish classes! It seemed unbelievable to me at the time. Not now. Somehow in their early education they were deprived of proper instruction in grammar. They did not have a grasp of how their language worked.

One thing I noticed as my kids went through school was a near absence of instruction in grammar. (This was even the case in our homeschooling years.) My own early school memories are heavy laden with the parsing of sentences - as early as second grade we were circling, underlining, double-underlining, and drawing arrows. Yet I found out later, particularly with my son, this sort of teaching has been virtually abandoned. A couple of years ago my teenage son spent a year in independent study. This was my first real exposure in several years to the type of education he was receiving. I found myself for the first time since he was in kindergarten correcting his work. Though he was a strong reader, his understanding of grammar was abysmal. I thought it might just be his own weakness, and made sure to see he was provided with a remedial grammar text, which he found very difficult. "Well", I thought, "I guess it's not that big a deal." (Interestingly, Spanish was one of the classes in which he could make no headway. I found this very puzzling, since language studies always seemed quite easy to me. I supposed he'd just not inherited that particular ability.)

Then my daughter decided to change her major in college. Having loved the two linguistics classes she took in the course of her Liberal Arts major, and having hated all the would-be-teacher classes, she opted to move from a teachers' track to a major in Linguistics. This seemed a very good fit. She would, however, have to take a language. She had taken a couple of relatively successful years of Spanish in high school, but was for some inexplicable reason adamantly opposed to continuing. She rejected Italian, which would have seemed a logical choice, seeing as she has family in Italy. So, Paul and I, both having taken several years of German in our school days, and having found it a very straightforward language to learn, and wanting to be helpful, recommended it to Gina. Oh boy! She entered into one of the first true intellectual challenges of her educational life. She really began to struggle. And the reason became clear very quickly. She didn't understand the parts of speech. She had no understanding of grammar. Fortunately she was taking a class in grammar concurrently with her first semester in German. If it weren't for that she may have floundered. Allow me to boast in my daughter for a moment: She got 100% on her first German mid-term!

So, what's this all about, and what brought this on you may wonder. Today I was reading the Koinonia blog and happened upon an entry by Bill Mounce, who has published a "new" New Testament Greek grammar text. This caught my eye for a couple of reasons: #1. He's on course to rival J. Gresham Machen's legendary text, which is the text I used in college. #2. Well, one of the primary reasons this text became necessary. Read on and you'll see what I mean. I've highlighted the passages pertinent to this discussion.

I know this is a bit off topic, but someone asked the other day about the history behind my grammar and suggested that people might be curious. So for what it’s worth, here it is.

Rote memory has never been my strong suite. In high school I memorized tons of poetry and found it easy to do, but when it came to just individual words, well, I’m not wired that way. This made high school Latin especially difficult. What I discovered about myself, however, was that I like charts; and if I could lay things out visually in a way that made sense to me, paradigms and the such were much easier to learn. So I became the chart maker in Latin, and many of my fellow students adopted my charts in preference to our text.

I learn Greek at Western Kentucky University with a totally inductive text, reading the gospel of John. I enjoyed the exposure to the biblical text, but the lack of structure was the undoing of the class. Midway through the first semester we switched to Machen’s text and used both texts to get through the two semester class. And once again I started making charts.

When I started teaching Greek at Rockmont College (now Colorado Christian University) in 1982, I used Machen. It is a really good book, but I quickly learned that the students Machen taught were not the same as the students I was teaching, most notably the lack of general English grammar.

I went the next year to Azusa Pacific University (I was the token Calvinist in a Wesley school — which is a practice I recommend to Reformed schools as well). I tried Machen, Wenham (who does a great job at teaching English), and a few others, but went back to Machen. And as is often the case with Greek teachers, I started making my own supplementary materials. After a few years my syllabus was larger than Machen itself, and with a grant from the school I decided to start writing my own grammar, again, another thing that most Greek teachers have done.

I tried to meld the best of my experiences into one teaching method. Among others, this meant teaching English first, trying to write a text that could teach itself if necessary, be sensitive to the common struggle with rote memory, to constantly remind students why they are spending all this time, and to have some fun in the process.

When I approached Zondervan with the product, it was met with some hesitancy. I still remember sitting in a restaurant next to APU with Stan Gundry (now an executive VP at Zondervan) and Ed van der Mass, my editor, talking through the needs of the market. Stan said that he wasn’t sure the market needed another Greek grammar — a statement I have often used in teasing him — but with strong support from Ed, Zondervan agreed to publish the book.

It was in a sense the perfect storm. The timing could not have been better for me. Machen was the dominant grammar (and was very good), but he was addressing a type of student that no longer existed (for the most part). Machen did not have to deal with students who barely knew what a dependent and subordinate construction was. Secondly, computer-aided learning tools were just becoming a possibility, and FlashWorks and ParseWorks were inviting tools for weary teachers (along with all the sample quizzes and tests). Thirdly, the price of Machen’s book was sky-rocketing without any revisions or additions; teachers were frustrated with the publisher’s policies. And finally, Jack Kragt, the person at Zondervan who marketed the book, tried a new method of getting the word out. He was much more aggressive and innovative. All of this went together to make a very successful rollout of the book.

So, the loss of grammar as a course of serious instruction is widespread - so widespread in fact that it's threatening to render a landmark text like Machen's obsolete. You certainly can't expect a structure built on a flimsy foundation to stand. The ability to communicate clearly and precisely so as to avoid misunderstanding depends upon clarity of speech. Improper use of grammar is not only annoying, it leads to ambiguities and confusion. I think of men like John Owen and Jonathan Edwards who were laborious even in the defining of their terms, so that their intricate ideas would not be muddied with uncertainties but understood with clarity. I cannot help but wonder what happens to the minds of people who are unable to follow complex chains of thought in speech or writing, merely because they do not understand the relationships between different parts of speech. Not only will such people not be able to benefit from some of the worlds greatest works of literature, they will not be able to understand the reasoning of the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans. I wonder what else the next generations will lose as a result of the loss of grammar.


WhiteStone said…
Oh, Laurie, you are so right! Today's children seldom even know subject/verb let alone clauses, etc. I admit I've forgotten much of what we studied in English grammar and yet I retained enough to know how to dig through the construction of a sentence. And right along with our failure in teaching grammar is a failure to properly teach math, spelling, and handwriting. Sigh!
Andy C said…
It was interesting last semester to see a big part of the struggle some of my fellow students were having with Greek, a lot of it due to the focus on grammar.

I would have struggled with it because an old dog does not like to learn new tricks.

I see what is lost in what kids learn today and I shake my head sometimes. It is sadly amusing to watch a 17 year old make change as a cashier.
Andi said…
I know what you mean. I was never taught proper grammar in the Christian elementary school I attended or in public high school. I want my kids to know this stuff, but since we home school it means I have to learn it all myself for the first time too. I'm kinda scared of it! I've even heard some home school speakers say that it's best to wait until the child is at least in the 8th grade before going in depth into grammar as it can be so complicated.
rainydaytoys said…
I never thought I was very good at grammar as a kid but as an adult and then becoming a secretary it seems I am better at it than most the other adults around me. So Ha to all those people who thought I was a stupid kid.
Laurie M. said…
That's one bit of advice I disagree with. I think the later it's introduced the more difficult it is, and the less integrated into thought patterns and habit. Grammar isn't really any more complicated than learning to read or do simple mathematics. It's best to start laying the groundwork while the brain is young and agile and busy building new frameworks and connections. Learning grammar is also a lesson in thinking skills, helping build the intellect in ways that help in many other kinds of learning. Grammar can begin to be taught very soon after learning to read. But you start with the basics and build on them, just like with math. You don't start off with fractions and long division, but simple addition.

If you'd like some help with it, let me know. I'd have to re-learn the grammar vocabulary though. They've changed the lingo a bit over the years. And I sure don't remember all the rules well enough to teach them at the moment.

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