If You Don’t Know English Grammar, You’ll Have Trouble Learning Foreign Languages

European schools do a great job of teaching foreign languages. In contrast, hardly any American high school graduates can use a foreign language, unless they learned it at home. This shocking lack of foreign language skills results from two problems. One is that American schools generally do not start teaching foreign languages until after the children have gone through puberty, when it suddenly becomes harder to learn new languages. The second is that American schools have been neglecting the teaching of English grammar.

In my years of working as an editor, I’ve met many educated Americans and a fair number of educated Europeans. The main difference between the Americans and the Europeans is that the educated Europeans tend to have far better skills in language. Most of the Europeans are fluent in several languages, whereas most of the educated Americans cannot read a newspaper or hold a conversation in anything but English. The exceptions are mainly the sons and daughters of immigrants. Many educated Americans write so badly in English that I have to edit their work beyond all recognition to make it suitable for publication. I rarely find writing that bad from Europeans, even if English is their third or fourth language.

Why do so many Americans have such trouble with language arts? I think that it’s because the educational establishment in the United States decided about 50 years ago that grammar school teachers should stop teaching grammar. (I managed to learn English grammar anyway, through independent study.) Also, the American schools do not start teaching foreign languages until junior high school or even high school, which is far too late.

When I studied Spanish in high school and German in college, I noticed that my classmates had trouble with things that came easily to me. I realized that it’s because they didn’t know what I knew about English grammar. They didn’t understand such concepts as the grammatical case of nouns and pronouns or the mood of a verb in English. If you don’t know how these things work in your native language, how on earth are you supposed to understand how they work in some other language?

I am not the only person to have noticed this problem. David Mulroy, who is a classics professor at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, explained it as follows in his excellent book, The War Against Grammar:

Grammatical terms are part of an orderly set of concepts that describe the organizational features of all intelligible speech and writing. Ignorance of the part of speech of am is particularly telling. The verb be in its various forms is of fundamental importance in understanding English grammar. For example, the rule for making the passive voice is that you combine the appropriate form of be with the past participle of the verb in question. But this rule means nothing to students who do not know that am, is, are, was, were, and been are forms of be. When I began teaching, I never imagined that I would ever encounter a college student who did not understand such an elementary fact. It was a watershed event in my career when I realized that few of my students knew what I meant by “the verb to be.” They thought I was referring to a word that was destined to become a verb.

College professors have had to find ways to compensate for this ignorance among their students. Here’s a link to Dale A. Grote’s Study Guide to Wheelock’s Latin. In the Preface, Grote explains,

Wheelock’s Latin is now, and probably will be for sometime in the future, the most widely used introductory Latin book used in American colleges and universities. And with good reason. His exclusive emphasis on the details of Latin grammar squares with the general expectation that students acquire a rudimentary, independent reading ability in real Latin after only two semesters of study. Surely Wheelock has its drawbacks and limitations, but it is still the best text around.

A growing difficulty with the book has become apparent in recent years, a problem that is entirely external to the text itself: students are less and less able to understand his explanations of Latin grammar because their grasp of English grammar is becoming more tenuous. This obsolescence hardly comes as a surprise, since the main outlines of Wheelock’s grammar were set down in the forties and fifties, when it was safe to assume that college students were well versed in at least the basics of English grammar. We may lament this change, write heated letters to school boards and state legislatures, but all this is of little help when confronted as we are with classrooms filled with beginning Latin students who have never learned the difference between a participle and a pronoun, or who have never heard the word “case” in their lives.

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