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Hearing and Speaking Well are Key to Writing Well

But why can't Americans speak?

Education... has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading. - G. M. Trevelyan

(Lecture Notes)

The fact is that using auditory learning to master good English in most American public schools is doomed to failure because examples of good English are seldom to be found there (talking is not the same as speaking well), whereas there are some superb sources of spoken English that homeschoolers can use if they know where to find them. We have selected and collected a vast repository of audio learning resources. Unfortunately, many homeschoolers and most Americans do not understand why formal English is worth learning.

What is good language?

This is a very sticky question and one that can be disputed endlessly and ultimately pointlessly. Should we be endorsing a strict set of grammar and usage rules, teaching classical literature, vocabulary, metaphor, expressive devices? Should we simply be following the lead of popular culture, readily adopting new usages and expressions and punctuating our speech with the word "like" several times a sentence, disparaging events and objects with "it sucks", or expressing contrition and remorse with "my bad." This question could lead to endless heated debate, but there is really a very simple answer: Good language is that which conveys to your intended audience the information and impression that you want to convey! That's it and that's all there is to it! It remains only to determine what flavor of language one needs for a particular situation.

When a subject becomes totally obsolete we make it a required course. - Peter Drucker

Vocabulary which will be lost on your audience is pointless. And, you know, like, not saying like anything you like need to say really sucks. Such fumbling inarticulacy may indeed be worse. "As the like massive diplodocus like pranced over the field like a slug in a like tutu, like three hundred tiny penguins waving like stuffed rabbits and ducks like descended from the like hills like a swarm of malicious like parakeets." [See Use of Like has Illustrious Precedent]

I teach a college preparatory English class at Excellence In Education in Monrovia. My students are preparing themselves to use language which will favorably impress those who will be reading their examination and college admission essays. Their intended audience will probably not appreciate the use of "like" as verbal punctuation and are also unlikely to award points for "it sucks" or "my bad".

Indeed, let's look at that expression for a moment. "Bad" is not a normally noun, at least it wasn't until a few years ago. Do we really need it to be one? Do we need another word in the language to convey that meaning? What's wrong with: My fault, my mistake, my transgression, my error, my lapse, my oversight, my blunder, my inanity, my faux pas? Do we really need another word for that concept so badly that we have to force an adjectival square peg into a nominal round hole?

Perhaps there is solid expressive justification for these verbal mutations and they have certainly established themselves in our culture. Their longevity is still unknown however, and they may soon retreat to a historical backwater together with "That's swell", "it's groovy man" and other linguistic ephemera. One can, however, reasonably assume with a fair level of certainty that the use of "it sucks" is not guaranteed to win points on a college entrance exam. It might be fine with some evaluators but might well offend others. In most situations, It is best to choose expressions that are intended not to evoke a negative response in any of one's possible audience. [Split infinitive tangent.]

An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don't. - Anatole France

On the other end of the spectrum, a responsible academic who is grading papers and in doing so encounters an unfamiliar word (one which, upon scrutiny, is indeed felicitous and correct) will not regard it as an error. One is therefore well advised to avoid the vernacular and to venture somewhat more confidently toward the erudite with little danger of speaking over the head of your reader when writing for or speaking to college entrance examiners.

I don't intend in any way to disparage other dialects and means of expression. Many wonderfully colorful and meaningful verbal devices have developed in regional and cultural corners of English language usage. The one I am most comfortable with might be singularly inappropriate in prison, the sports field, or realms of the military for example -- situations in which I would be well advised to modify my speech patterns. It all comes down to: Match your language to your audience, adjust it to achieve the effect you are seeking. However, one more very important thing to consider: It is easier to lower your language than to raise it. It is easier to reduce the complexity of your vocabulary, grammar and expressions than it is to increase it.

Try not to have a good time ... This is supposed to be educational. - Charles Schulz
You may well find it suits your book
To be a little smarter than you look.
But lo, you'll find it's easier by far
to look a little stupider than you are. -- Piet Hein:

In short, the English we study is that which would be accepted on a college paper anywhere in the world, English which follows a few simple precepts. I am a fan of the SAT. Not just because I wrote a book on it, but because it presents a standard of usage that is fairly universally accepted and generally undisputed. The Educational Testing Service has established certain guidelines for English that (with only a few exceptions) describe standard edited English. Whether the SAT accurately evaluates these skills or not is a different story, but the guidelines set by the SAT do provide a standard against which we can measure academic language for grammatical and stylistic compliance.

Standard Edited Written English has been fairly well established as the norm for academic work. Though there is really no official standard that unites all regional variants of English, the minor distinctions between British, Australian, American etc. English do not pose a problem and no educated reader will take offense at the occasional alternative spelling or word choice. Standard Edited English is, for all practical purposes, the same in America as it is anywhere else. The big difference is: We don't speak Standard Edited English here, while much of the rest of the academic world does! In this country, we, and I include many highly educated American speakers in this, we speak a highly informal and generally very sloppy form of English that would require a great deal of editing to become acceptable in any college paper. Most British, German, French, Swedish, Australian scholars speak flavors of English that are much closer to acceptable edited prose. Why are Americans so slovenly with their spoken language?

Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. - Oscar Wilde

A case in point: My younger daughter is now taking a college astronomy class. Together with the text there is a DVD which includes short presentations by many eminent astronomers. Interestingly, SAT errors are committed frequently by the American astronomers, far more than by the Belgian, German or British scientists. In this country there seems to be little effort given to polishing one's informal spoken language. This shows so clearly even in the speech of the highly educated, and is certainly reflected in the words of the young.

For example: The redundancy, sometimes called the pleonasm.

"...[we are] producing an ever increasingly more sophisticated model of the universe."

These are acceptable:

An ever increasingly sophisticated model

An ever more sophisticated model

"How much more repetitively superfluously tautologically redundant can we make it?" "An ever, further, extensively, increasingly, more sophisticated model"

Or mismatched parallelism (in this case gerund/infinitive mismatch) such as:

"...[they were] less interested in answering the scientific questions than to support the emperor's power."

This problem can be best demonstrated by expanding the parallel constructs out:

They were interested in answering the scientific questions.

They were interested to support the emperor's power.

Or a statement that simply does not say what the speaker means: "... This stellar body emits two streams of energy on either side." Of course, what is meant is: "... This stellar body emits two streams of energy, one on either side." This demonstrates another critical aspect of good language. Well crafted language means what it is supposed to mean. Sloppy language is at best imprecise and frequently thoroughly misleading. ["X times more than" tangent.]

These are all classic SAT errors of the sort that are addressed on almost every SAT exam. The mangling of language is even more common of course in spoken lectures in secondary school classrooms, but this kind of error is very rarely heard in the speech of Foreign academics and virtually never in the language of British scholars.

Learning to speak well is easy to do!

Try not to have a good time ... This is supposed to be educational. - Charles Schulz

Learning language is one of the easiest things a child can do. It simply requires no effort. Our brains are designed for language and, at some ages more than others, we absorb like a sponge everything we hear -- hundreds of words in a day with no expenditure of effort. Unfortunately, so often we unwittingly squander this opportunity. We have to give children the words that their minds are so eager to encounter, that their ears and tongues are yearning to hear and use. It is also an unfortunate fact that through television, school, and home, we do children a disservice by providing flawed and ill constructed verbal fodder which is, together with valuable verbal matter, then equally readily incorporated into their speech and understanding. Even after we learn to read and to rely heavily upon the printed medium for reference and study, many of us retain a preference for auditory learning -- very often an unconscious and automatic process which requires no effort, no discipline and is utterly painless. The ability to listen and to speak is innate. And, as one of my favorite speakers put it: "If you can speak, you can write -- But, how many of you can speak?" Children who hear good speech can speak!

I was a very lucky child. My parents were both writers and my mother was an editor and speaker for many years. I think I can still say that, though English was her third language, she wielded it better than anyone else with whom I am personally acquainted. She would simply never consider using poor grammar and certainly never resorted to slang. My father also did his part in reading to us children -- over 100 books we estimated at one point. Unfortunately, homeschooling was not viewed as an option at the time and wonderful linguistic opportunities were squandered through years of public school. But the problem was not just public school, it was also the written word!

The written word can be a barrier to language learning

How can the book be at fault?

Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death - Albert Einstein

I remember slogging through Dickens and Shakespeare in crowded classrooms full of uninterested children presided over by dutiful and uninspired teachers. There was nothing remotely interesting at all about the process nor the subject matter. The thought of David Copperfield and Julius Caesar still revolts me and I have still not been able to bring myself to revisit them. However, some years later in college I went to a live performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. It was a revelation! I came out of that performance with such sounds in my head! I was speaking Shakespearean English almost immediately and comfortably and I went to many other performances and organized play readings among my friends in the dormitory. There is simply a world of difference between the dry and lifeless words on the page and those superb words spoken by a living person who understands them and can endow them with the meaning they deserve.

Some people learn well from the written word, but this is an acquired skill and only comes after the child has left the peak years of language acquisition behind. On the other hand, everyone learns from hearing language and young children learn exclusively from sound. Some of us, more I suspect than most people realize, never do grow out of that.

In many ages and societies auditory learning was the norm. The book opened some avenues but closed others.

When my elder daughter, Fiona, was 2,3, and 4 years old, an amateur Shakespeare troupe was performing at the local botanical gardens each summer -- twice a weekend for a month. We attended many of these, sometimes all of them, and Fiona just ate it up. It was not immediately evident what effect As You Like It, Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night's Dream might have had on her, but she loved them and that was perhaps most important. The effect of that and other influences was clearly evident however.

Children will occasionally come up with things that just blow you away though and this happened to us many times with both my girls. On one occasion when she was three, Fiona was explaining something to us when we were sitting at an outdoor restaurant and some passerby remarked on how articulate she was. Fiona responded "That's because I'm garrulous" and then popped her thumb into her mouth. Over and over again she would nonchalantly drop these bombs and then always finish with the thumb. [Tautology anecdote.]

Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. - Oscar Wilde

Children learn the language to which they are exposed. It's the most natural thing in the world to them. It's not painful. It's not onerous. It's not drudgery. Fiona went on to start taking college classes at 10, beginning with a Shakespeare class taught by a friend of mine and a computer programming class that I was teaching. The Shakespeare class she loved -- and the teacher loved her. She didn't think so much of programming.

In our culture, the book has long been thought of as the iconic repository of knowledge as well as the symbol of learning. However, it serves only those who have learnt to read and is not always the most effective even for them. Oratory, on the other hand, once the primary medium of communication in many cultures, has only recently become as accessible as the library. While radio, television and the pulpit have had their influence, it is only in recent years that the listener has gained unfettered access to the spoken word in the same way as the reader has to the written word. Lectures, debates and interviews from Harvard, Oxford, Yale, MIT, Cambridge are now just a mouseclick away. Thanks to Librivox, the wealth of audible public domain literature is now approaching what the Gutenberg project has given us in text form. Soon, every significant work from Homer to the 20th century will be available for free in audio as well as textual form.

How to take advantage of a child's auditory learning ability

A child will learn the language that he or she hears. From parents, she will learn whatever they use; from television, she will pick up the very basic and simplistic turns of phrase that have been designed and selected to be comprehensible to the largest viewing demographic. In school, she will learn slang, profanity, intimidation and rancorous verbal sparring, often as a prelude to physical conflict. Teachers may also have some impact, but even when it is a positive factor, it will almost certainly be overwhelmed by other influences. It is also likely that in school she will learn a deep seated aversion to academics and scholarship. I did.

The questions are:

  1. 1. What language are children hearing?
  2. 2. What language do we want them to be learning?
  3. 3. How do we present useful auditory learning matter?

Though children learn easily through hearing and thereby quickly gain a visceral feel for the flow and meanders of well crafted prose -- if that is what they encounter -- they just as easily pick up whatever auditory flotsam and detritus our popular culture throws their way. This is inevitable, but we just have to make sure that they have heard some worthwhile things as well.

Using the simple and fairly universal set of SAT grammar and usage rules as a yardstick, how much good language does a child actually hear? It is really quite remarkable how little spoken language complies with this simple set of rules. From radio and television, to the classroom and even the lecture hall, "SAT errors" abound in unedited American speech. Yes, some of the worst offenders are classroom teachers! How can we demand that students demonstrate proper language when their ears are continually subjected to misusages by their teachers! I feel strongly that polished formal standard English should dominate in the classroom, in both written and spoken examples. Emulation is one of the most powerful pedagogical devices and it is a crime to use it to propagate errors and misusages.

How the Homeschooler can study English

The homeschooling family has more flexibility than the public school family when it comes to selecting study material.

Starting with our Children's Book Page, we have been trying to collect those works which will best serve children during those childhood years of peak language acquisition and acquaint them with good vocabulary and language usage -- language which, when assimilated, will benefit them in school, college, and throughout their lives. This has been expanded to include audio works for very young children, and for highly accomplished English speakers seeking to expand their abilities. I have created a page specifically for you that links to all of these. While there is no guarantee that lectures, even those from ivy league universities, will demonstrate perfect or inspired language, there are indeed a number of scholars whose unscripted speech is invariably flawless, beautiful and sublimely conceived, and which could go into print anywhere without any editing at all. I have found a fairly good collection of this online and am adding more all the time.

It is truly remarkable how quickly one's auditory language sense can tune itself to the structure and cadences of well-crafted speech. We and our children fail to use language well entirely because in so many cases, we have simply never heard it done. For some people, one hour of listening can be all it takes to become a life-long fan of the spoken word.

Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army. - Edward Everett

The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives. - Robert M. Hutchins