Monday, March 5, 2012

Why Grammar is Worth Learning (and how not to teach it)

I just thought I'd share this excerpt from the magnificent Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog:

 Profound Thought No. 10
A stratum of consciousness
Leading to beauty

In the morning, as a rule, I always take a moment to listen to music in my room. Music plays a huge role in my life. It is music that helps me to endure . . . well . . . everything there is to endure: my sister, my mother, school, Achille Grand-Fernet, and so on. Music is not merely a pleasure to the ears the way that gastronomy is to the palate or painting to the eyes. There’s nothing terribly original about the fact that I put music on in the morning, just that it sets the tone for the rest of the day. It’s very simple but also sort of complicated to explain: I believe that we can choose our moods: because we are aware that there are several mood-strata and we have the means to gain access to them. For example, to write a profound thought, I have to put myself onto a very special stratum, otherwise the ideas and words just don’t come. I have to forget myself and at the same time be superconcentrated. But it’s not a question of “the will,” it’s a mechanism I can set in motion or not, like scratching my nose or doing a backward roll. And to activate the mechanism there’s nothing better than a little music. For example, to relax, I put on something that takes me into a sort of faraway mood, where things can’t really reach me, where I can look at them as if I were watching a film: a “detached” stratum of consciousness. In general, for that particular stratum, I resort to jazz or, more effective overall but longer to take effect: Dire Straits (long live my mp3 player).
So, this morning I listened to Glenn Miller before leaving for school. I guess it didn’t last long enough. When the incident occurred, I lost all my detachment. It was during French class with Madame Fine (who is a living antonym because she has a repository of spare tires around her midriff). What’s more, she wears pink. I love pink, I think it’s a color that’s had a bad rap, it’s made out to be a thing for babies or women who wear too much makeup, but pink is really a subtle and delicate color, and it figures a lot in Japanese poetry. But pink and Madame Fine are a bit like jam and pigs. Anyway, this morning I had French class with her. That in itself is already a chore. French with Madame Fine is reduced to a long series of technical exercises, whether we’re doing grammar or reading texts. With her it’s as if a text was written so that we can identify the characters, the narrator, the setting, the plot, the time of the story, and so on. I don’t think it has ever occurred to her that a text is written above all to be read and to arouse emotions in the reader. Can you imagine, she has never even asked us the question: “Did you like this text/this book?” And yet that is the only question that could give meaning to the narrative points of view or the construction of the story . . . Never mind the fact that the minds of younger kids are, I think, more open to literature than say the minds of high school or college students. Let me explain: at my age, all you need is to talk to us about something with some passion, pluck the right strings (love, rebellion, thirst for novelty, etc.) and you have every chance of succeeding. Our history teacher, Monsieur Lermit, had us hooked by the end of the second class by showing us photos of these guys who’d had their hand or their lips cut off under Sharia law, because they’d been stealing or smoking. But he didn’t do it as if he were showing us a gory film or something. It was enthralling, and we listened attentively throughout the class, the point of which was to warn us against the foolishness of mankind, and not Islam specifically. So if Madame Fine had taken the trouble to read a few verses of Racine to us, with a tremor in her voice, (Que le jour recommence et que le jour finisse / Sans que jamais Titus puisse voir Bérénice) she would have discovered that the average adolescent is fully ripe for the tragedy of love. By high school it’s harder: adulthood is around the corner, kids already have an intuitive idea of how grown-ups behave, and they begin to wonder what role and what place they are going to inherit on stage, and anyway by then something has been spoiled, and the goldfish bowl is no longer very far away.
It is bad enough to have to put up with the usual grind of a class in literature without literature and a class in language without cognizance of language, so this morning when I felt something snap inside me, I just couldn’t contain myself. Madame Fine was making a point about the use of qualifying adjectives as epithets, on the pretext that our compositions were completely barren of said grammatical grace notes, “whereas really, it’s the sort of thing you learn in third grade.” She went on: “Am I to honestly believe there are students who are this incompetent in grammar,” and she looked right at Achille Grand-Fernet. I don’t like Achille Grand-Fernet but in this case I agreed with him when he asked his question. I feel it was long overdue. Moreover, when a lit teacher uses a split infinitive like that, I’m really shocked. It’s like someone sweeping the floor and forgetting the dust bunnies. “What’s the point of grammar?” asked Achille Grand-Fernet. “You ought to know by now,” replied Madame Never-mind-that-I-am-paid-to-teach-you. “Well I don’t,” replied Achille, sincerely for once, “no one ever bothered to explain it to us.” Madame Fine let out a long sigh, of the “do I really have to put up with such stupid questions” variety, and said, “The point is to make us speak and write well.”
I thought I would have a heart attack there and then. I have never heard anything so grossly inept. And by that, I don’t mean it’s wrong, just that it is grossly inept. To tell a group of adolescents who already know how to speak and write that that is the purpose of grammar is like telling someone that they need to read a history of toilets through the ages in order to pee and poop. It is utterly devoid of meaning! If she had shown us some concrete examples of things we need to know about language in order to use it properly, well, okay, why not, that would be a start. She could tell us, for example, that knowing how to conjugate a verb in all its tenses helps you avoid making the kind of major mistakes that would put you to shame at a dinner party (“I would of came to the party earlier but I tooked the wrong road”). Or, for example, that to write a proper invitation in English to a little divertissement at the château of Versailles, knowing the rules governing spelling and the use of apostrophes in la langue de Shakespeare can come in very useful: it would save you from embarrassment such as: “Deer freind, may we have the plesure of you’re company at Versaille’s this evening? The Marquise de Grand-Fernet.” But if Madame Fine thinks that’s all grammar is for . . . We already knew how to use and conjugate a verb long before we knew it was a verb. And even if knowing can help, I still don’t think it’s something decisive.
Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you’ve said or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognize a well-turned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language. When you use grammar you peel back the layers, to see how it is all put together, see it quite naked, in a way. And that’s where it becomes wonderful, because you say to yourself, “Look how well-made this is, how well-constructed it is! How solid and ingenious, rich and subtle!” I get completely carried away just knowing there are words of all different natures, and that you have to know them in order to be able to infer their potential usage and compatibility. I find there is nothing more beautiful, for example, than the very basic components of language, nouns and verbs. When you’ve grasped this, you’ve grasped the core of any statement. It’s magnificent, don’t you think? Nouns, verbs . . .
Perhaps, to gain access to all the beauty of the language that grammar unveils, you have to place yourself in a special state of awareness. I have the impression that I do that anyway without any special effort. I think that it was at the age of two, when I first heard grown-ups speak, that I understood once and for all how language is made. Grammar lessons have always seemed to me a sort of synthesis after the fact and, perhaps, a source of supplemental details concerning terminology. Can you teach children to speak and write correctly through grammar if they haven’t had the illumination that I had? Who knows. In the meanwhile, all the Madame Fines on the planet ought rather to ask themselves what would be the right piece of music to play to make their pupils go into a grammatical trance.
So I said to Madame Fine: “Not at all! That is simplistic!” There was great silence in the classroom both because as a rule I never open my mouth and because I had contradicted the teacher. She looked at me with surprise, then she put on one of those stern looks that all teachers use when they feel that the wind is veering to the north and their cozy little class on punctuation might turn into a tribunal of their pedagogical methods. “And what do you know about it, Mademoiselle Josse?” she asked acidly. Everyone was holding their breath. When the star pupil is displeased, it’s bad for the teaching body, particularly when that body is well-fed, so this morning it was like a thriller and a circus act all rolled into one: everyone was waiting to see what the outcome of the battle would be, and they were hoping it would be a bloody one.
“Well,” I said, “when you’ve read Jakobson, it becomes obvious that grammar is an end in itself and not simply a means: it provides access to the structure and beauty of language, it’s not just some trick to help people get by in society.”
“Some trick! Some trick!” she scoffed, her eyes popping out of her head. “For Mademoiselle Josse grammar is a trick!”
If she had listened carefully to what I said, she would have understood that, for me, grammar is not a trick. But I think the reference to Jakobson caused her to lose it completely, never mind that everyone was giggling, including Cannelle Martin, even though they didn’t get what I had said at all, but they could tell a little cloud from Siberia was hovering over the head of our fat French teacher. In reality, I’ve never read a thing by Jakobson, obviously not. Though I may be supersmart, I’d still rather read mangas or literature. But Maman has a friend (who’s a university professor) who was talking about Jakobson yesterday (while they were indulging in a hunk of camembert and a bottle of red wine at five in the afternoon). So, in class this morning I remembered what she had said.
At that moment, when I could sense that the rabble were growling and showing their teeth, I felt pity. I felt sorry for Madame Fine. And I don’t like lynching. It never puts anyone in a good light. Never mind that I don’t want anyone to go digging into my knowledge of Jakobson and begin to doubt the reality of my IQ.
So I backed off and didn’t say anything. I got two hours of detention and Madame Fine saved her professorial skin. But when I left the classroom, I could feel her worried little gaze following me out the door.
And on the way home I thought: pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.

This book is amazing. Buy it now. 

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