I will take it as read that there is some interest amongst English lecturers in the issue of whether, how and how much to teach language to English undergraduates. It is certainly a growing market, and those of us teaching in the new University sector know all about the importance of strong recruitment.
We have been teaching language at Huddersfield as part of the main English degree (formerly Humanities, then Communication Arts, now English Studies) for more than 12 years. It has always been part of our outlook that however much some students might fight it, they will thank us in due course for making sure that they had at least a basic descriptive knowledge of the English language. I suppose I am quite stubborn in my belief that a little difficult grammar (and other things) won’t do the undergraduates any harm, though I also know that they learn how to do it much better when they are neither afraid nor bored. A combination of keeping everyone on board (i.e. not giving up on those who go blank when faced with a clause to decipher) and using lively ways of practising the analytical techniques seems to get most of the students through the first year.
I’m sure that the increasing numbers of students coming to us with an A level in English Language or combined Language and Literature will help in what sometimes seems like a remedial task; teaching the basics of linguistic description. However, the A levels often seem to skirt round the more technical aspects of the subject, and we feel that we cannot do likewise without disadvantaging the students in their advanced language studies. There is only so far you can go unless you understand basic grammar, phonology, semantics and pragmatics. The most hard-working students cannot fulfil their potential by producing a strong sociolinguistics project in the second year unless they are able to use detailed analysis of the examples they collect from their informants. The most interesting projects produced by Child Language Acquisition students are those which describe the progress a child is making with reference to the phonology, morphology or grammar of their utterances. Third year Language and Power students need to be able to identify the main elements of a clause to carry out any kind of Critical Discourse Analysis. Those taking modules in Conversation Analysis and Pragmatics need to understand the ‘levels’ model of language and where their investigations fit into it – or don’t. Students of stylistics can get no further than impressionistic comments about the language of literature or other texts without the technical aspects of description. And for those students who avoid all contact with language modules beyond the compulsory ones (I came here to read novels and learn about ‘Literature’), you would be surprised how many proudly tell me at graduation in November that they are the only one on their PGCE course that understands the language component of their course!
This is turning into a hard-sell for hard linguistics, but I am unrepentant. There is nothing more irritating than half-baked generalisations about language, given by those who may be experts in other fields (e.g. literary or media studies) but who assume that language is somehow transparent. We linguists have an important role to play in the theorising and analysis of texts, and sometimes that theorising requires difficult linguistics. The more there are graduates out there who understand some of the subtleties of language study, the better understanding ‘we’ (i.e. academics or even society generally) will have about how human communication works, doesn’t work, is manipulated, or manipulates us for good or ill.
This brings me to some good news. I have perceived a gradual reduction in the reluctance of students to engage with language study. This may be the result of school-based teaching by graduate teachers who are not afraid of language. It may be just a sea-change that relates to other social or political phenomena. Whatever the reason, our students are choosing language modules in ever greater numbers. We are almost at the position where, given a free choice between language and literature modules, the choices are equally divided between the two strands. Although these figures include large numbers of students who ‘only’ want to study literature, they inevitably also include increasing numbers of language ‘specialists’, as well as many who choose to study a combination. We have even thought it worthwhile this year to validate a new English Language degree for those who know from the outset that language is their ‘thing’. This degree will have a first year that overlaps broadly with the English Studies students’ programme, and will then simply follow all the language modules currently available. In addition, there will be core courses for the specialist language students to introduce them to some of the theoretical and methodological issues that underlie the descriptive work they are doing in the shared modules. They will thus be prepared for higher level work in language, should they wish to study further, as well as understanding theory and model-building in general.
Writing about English language with such enthusiasm is bound to make me sound a little bit anti-literature. Nothing could be more wrong (much of my work is concerned with the stylistics of poetry), and I am depressed by stories I hear of misunderstanding, mutual suspicion and mistrust between language and literature ‘factions’ in some institutions. More understanding between the two ‘sides’ of the subject is needed, and in my experience it is the lack of knowledge that leads to much of the suspicion. Literature teachers might not be thrilled to learn that language is on the way up in students’ evaluation if they think jobs are threatened. But if language is one of the attractions that keeps students studying English at all, they may yet have us to thank for the boost to application numbers!
Newsletter Issue 2 - August 2001
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