Friday, April 23, 2010

An unabridged linguistics

(Published in T h e L i g h t, organ of English Language Lovers' Association, Dr S P Ghosh Rd, Bagbazar, Chandannagar 712136, Hooghly, West Bengal, India, Number 28, March 2010, pp 3 and 10-16)

Equipping teachers of English with an unabridged linguistics

Probal Dasgupta

My work as a linguist leads me to take very seriously the relation between spoken language and written language. In the field of linguistics we use the term `substances' to refer to the phonic medium of speaking and the graphic medium of writing. Conventional approaches in linguistics are formalistic. Their methods encourage a focus on abstract forms, at some distance from the concreteness of spoken conversations. Even though formalists claim neutrality between writing and speech, their attention is focused on texts, not conversation. Formalism leads to an abridgement of the content of linguistics, and of its toolkit.

The first major unabridged approach to the study of language emerged in the ancient Indian tradition of inquiry whose continuations are known as modern linguistics. Panini focused on formal issues alone in his justly celebrated A s h t a d h y a y i in order to contribute formal devices to what was already an established field of serious inquiry. He could not have imagined that the substantive account of language, conversation and discourse in his uncle Dakshayana's treatise S a m g r a h a would disappear from the surface of the earth, and that the community of linguists would allow a drastic abridgement of their field.

By the time Bhartrihari was composing his philosophical and grammatical treatise V a k y a p a d i y a, a thousand years later, Dakshayana's S a m g r a h a had already become marginal. Bhartrihari tried to bring those concerns back and to overcome the abridgement of linguistic theory. But modern linguistics has steered clear of the literary and social matrix in which language lives and moves. When the linguists of the last couple of centuries have engaged with the social matrix at all, this has been on the basis of an ad hoc characterization of `prestige' as an intangible quality, backed by a socio-political `elite', that enables certain words and forms to vanquish others in some sort of struggle for cultural `power' or `hegemony'. Users of these pretheoretical terms, to this day, have failed to articulate any viable conceptual structures that help make sense of them. In our times, only extremely abridged versions of linguistics have been available in the libraries.

Indian culture, however, has proved its resilience in this domain. Spontaneous and innovative work by Haraprasad Shastri, Rabindranath Tagore and Suniti Kumar Chatterji, work that has inspired Ashok Kelkar (who forged a relationship of mutual respect with Chatterji), has led to a new tradition of unabridged linguistics, one that does not try to take words or sounds out of their contexts and lock them into a merely formal game. Within this new tradition, some of us have been working to set up sustainable terms of reference for what has been called a substantivist approach to the rigorous study of language, literature and allied phenomena.

At the level of empirical research, evidence in favour of substantivism, and against formalism, has been mounting. Even in the face of evidence, of course, people do not easily change their mind. But it is clear that the study of language is moving towards an unabridged linguistics that will not shy away from conversations with neighbouring disciplines.

Specifically, the conversation with colleagues in language teaching, which had not been doing well, needs to be upgraded. One view of language pedagogy treats it as a branch of `applied linguistics'. On that assumption, the theory of language would count as an autonomously pursued line of scientific inquiry that happens to have applications including language pedagogy. Such a visualization of how the hard work that language teachers do is related to the often not particularly taxing work that we do in linguistics has, entirely unsurprisingly, failed to lead to any worthwhile conversation. Serious linguists -- of either the formalist or the substantivist persuasion -- have never envisaged such a hegemonic role for the science of language. Linguists have consistently argued that schoolteachers who handle language and other subjects are practising a difficult art, must find their feet at the level of this practice, and should carry out their own social, cultural and theory-building exercises at some distance from the science of language per se.

My own take on this has been that such `language arts' as language pedagogy, translation, literary reviewing/ commentary/ criticism/ analysis, the fashioning of sustainable language policy in administrative, educational and other domains, and so on, are worthy and autonomous pursuits. Their practitioners, institutionally and individually, should not be asked to subordinate their initiative and self-monitoring to a supposedly omniscient linguistic science. However, the input of linguistic theoreticians does need to reach the practitioners of some of these arts, for them to use as they see fit, along with other relevant input -- intellectual, artistic, ethical, logistic and political.

What remains unclear in earlier articulations of this approach is that, while teachers of language need not make a major investment of intellectual energies in grammatical and lexical study, this argument does not extend to tertiary academics in the language teaching focused variant of, say, the English studies enterprise. Surely they should be studying linguistics with some diligence. That they are getting away with not doing so has to do with the fact that senior literary colleagues who hire them are not in conversation with linguists, thus creating a traffic jam at the level of academic discourse. The socially relevant upshot is that universities are unable to send coherent messages to those who actually teach languages. In other words, we in academia, locked into various non-conversations, find ourselves in a stymied state of mutual disenfranchisement. Consequently, the input that language teachers rightly keep asking for ends up taking the form of personal messages -- such as the present text -- whose validity no community of peers is in a position to comment on. When convergent knowledge (or p r a m a a, or e p i s t e m e) becomes undeliverable, you are stuck with divergent opinions (or j n a a n a, or d o x a i) - I say this to allow for the possibility that you may not have been convinced by the systematic relativizers who maintain that there is no such thing as e p i s t e m e, and that d o x a i are what we have to settle for.

Without further ado, I shall deliver my message now. The way our public discourse encourages us to talk about human speech and writing revolves around these entities -- separate languages, called by names such as Bangla and English and Malayalam and French -- that we treat as institutional givens. We are also encouraged to assume that a child C is able to learn L, one of these entities L-i, L-j, L-k, only because others who already know L are willing to teach L to C; and that when C grows up, her adult knowledge of L consists entirely of material that she has learnt from other users in the L community over the years. But linguistic research has given us cogent reasons to reject these common beliefs. We know now that a speaker of Bangla or English who is asked, for the first time in her life, to examine such sentences as (a) John and Bill burnt each other's passports and (b) John and Bill told Mary to burn each other's passports, or their Bangla equivalents (x) John aar Bill parosparer passport purxiye phello and (y) John aar Bill Maryke parosparer passport purxiye phelte bollo, will agree that (a) and (x) are legitimate sentences while (b) and (y) make no sense at all. We know also that this knowledge -- elicitable from all adult users of Bangla and English -- is demonstrably unrelated to anything ever taught to them in or outside language lessons. People have far more knowledge of language than they are ever taught, and this knowledge exists at a level that precedes and grounds the institutionally separated entities labelled as `Bangla' or `English'.

Linguists often call that level `Universal Grammar'. Perhaps more needs to be said. One characterization portrays Universal Grammar as part of every human child's innate endowment. On that approach, the expectation is that biology will, some day, explain how this fact about the human genotype has come about. Regardless of whether this or any other comment at such a general level will prove sustainable, linguists have demonstrated that much of what child C picks up when she acquires "language L" associated with "society S" belongs to Universal Grammar, the general human endowment -- not to anything that society S has built into its pedagogy that initiates C into S's culture. Thus, the commonly held view that discrete human societies S-i, S-j, S-k are associated with discrete languages L-i, L-j, L-k represents an excessively indulgent attitude to the fairy tales that children in those societies listen to as they grow up. That we speak in terms of discrete languages English, Bangla, Malayalam represents the kind of surrender to local mythologies that can be dramatized by imagining that people do not call England England, but call it Elizabethland as long as Elizabeth rules and equally quaintly changing its name to Charlesland from the date of her handing the throne over to Charles.

Linguists have shown that discrete languages are as mythological as thrones. Mythologies have their uses -- we may find the royal family of England very congenial indeed -- but we would distort our perceptions if we were to give them so much space on our maps. Linguists have also shown that our touching belief in the power of teaching fails to see the limits of teaching. Humans can be taught only because humans have a tree in their head whose flowering takes the form of what we call knowledge, and "teachers" help these trees to flower and bear fruit; the process of "giving" knowledge -- assumed in all our discourse of teaching someone and learning from someone -- is in very large part an optical illusion. To take this optical illusion seriously is empiricism; linguists have done more than practitioners of any other discipline to demonstrate that empiricism is an untenable theory of how knowledge arises in human minds.

Perhaps you have begun to ask how these ideas help you to make sense of the overall enterprise of the teaching of English and of your place on that map. I understand. You began to listen to me with that question in mind. As my words flowed past you, you kept waiting for me to address your question. Now that you find that what I have said seems not to do so, you repeat the question you came in with. My dear reader, do you not see that I am informing you, as gently as I can, that `the teaching of English' is a phrase enshrining two fallacies? Have I failed to convey to you the claims made by the community of grammarians - that no such bounded entity as `English' can be identified, for discrete languages do not exist, and that `teaching' of a language is an optical illusion? In other words, please ask yourself what makes you so sure that you know that there is such a thing as English or such a thing as language teaching. If you have arguments to counter the demonstration above (the one based on (a), (b), (x) and (y)), please formulate them; then we can have a useful debate. If you have not formulated such arguments, please be patient and hear me out.

Obviously, on a myth-loving planet on which people do keep calling their countries Elizabethland and Charlesland, theoreticians who have seen through the charade, but who have failed to persuade the rulers to abandon the quaint practice of visualizing countries through their queens and kings, are compelled to keep using these names to humour their myth-drugged neighbours. We linguists need to reach you and have no choice but to use terms like English and Bangla for what you, dear members of the public, call English and Bangla.

When we question these names, what indeed are we suggesting? You may be asking this legitimate question as you read me. What's in a name? Surely we are not asking you to use other names instead instead of English or Bangla or Malayalam.

No, we are urging the public and its rulers to see that the knowledge of language that grows in the minds of its speakers eludes your naming practices. This is like the fact that if you build a house and if you and the municipality agree to call it 25 Ballygunge Boulevard -- yes I know there is no such road, that is part of my point -- then it does not follow that a tree in your garden or a mango from your tree can be usefully called a 25 Ballygunge Boulevard tree or mango. Your address may help sort out ownership issues, but the address has nothing to do with any fruit, any stone, any bird there at a fruitological, stonological, birdological level. Likewise, there are no relations between English verbs and English direct objects. There is nothing phonetic to say about how English vowels and English consonants hang together.

We are not urging you to abandon the habit of naming your streets or numbering your houses, or of making ownership claims on a body of literature by calling it Bangla or English writing. We are asking you to see how tenuous a matter such ownership is bound to be, and to be more realistic about the give and take surrounding the mangoes that grow in your garden at 25 Ballygunge Boulevard. Watch the flow of fruits and appetities, and be reasonable. We are urging you not to get hung up on the claim that these mangoes are yours or theirs, or on the claim that sepoy is an English word while shipahi is a Bangla word.

Please see if you can build agreeably hospitable homes rather than fiercely bounded fortresses. We understand that there are going to be addresses for houses, and names for languages. Amen. Can we, however, persuade you to open up these addresses and names? Will you give unto nature what is nature's, if we give unto your Caesar what is Caesar's?

Thus, suppose I grant, for argument's sake, your visualization of a boundable Bangla or English or Tamil, and your right to build a proprietary wall around it and claim ownership on everything within your fortress. I even grant that there is such a thing as "teaching" in your sense of the term. In return, will you help me to build a couple of little fortresses where you have been refusing to let any of us do so?

I am like other users of the neutral `springboard' language (a reference to pedagogic experiments under way in some British schools) designed to promote open, cross-barrier lexical calibration -- Esperanto, whose word-structure, as I show in my book Inhabiting Human Languages: The Substantivist Visualization, does for the notion of Universal Lexicology the work that the apparatus of generative syntax does for Universal Grammar -- in wishing to have a Santali fortress, a Mundari fortress, a Ho fortress, a Khasi fortress. This is because educationist friends tell me experiments show that, if a child gets all of her primary and most of her secondary education through the `first language' (the language whose walls she is at home with) as the medium of instruction, then she actually grasps the content of such schooling and grows up cognitively healthy. In contrast -- studies show -- a child whose school uses the immersion method, snatching her away from the verbal environment of her home and forcing her to learn in a language not used in her family, grows up far less secure in her grasp of what the school tries to teach her.

Dear readers, you know a lot of English, I understand, and have perhaps done a lot of advanced reading, even looked at journals at the language-education interface? Perhaps you have even read my educationist friends or been to their seminars, and can recognize them from my allusions? You then know, surely, that other friends of yours who say they disagree never get around to refuting their arguments, but keep running away from debates on these issues? I conclude that children from Santali-speaking homes, for example, need a Santali-first system of schooling and teachers who will show them how to take pride in the language they speak. Will you help me to build such systems for this nation's rich array of indigenous languages in return for my willingness to humour your desire to imagine a world of language-fortresses, and to help you to fashion what you may wish to call an approach to the teaching of English within a framework of applied linguistics?

You think I am flippantly changing the subject? My dear reader, I have seldom been more serious, and seldom stuck to the subject more closely. A.K. Ramanujan, shortly before he passed away, spoke to me of his firm belief that the impulses of modernity that had once led Indians to wield English as an instrument of their own would also help them find their way back to their languages very soon. He regarded these as twin sectors of the same enterprise and was sure that even those Indians who had become entirely English-focused would soon see the point. Are Anglophone Indians going to prove to be a far less perceptive community than Ramanujan had hoped?

Oh, you thought I meant an education devoid of English, did you? To be sure, a reasonable education for children of the indigenous peoples of India has to connect not just with the idiom of the home but also with whatever winds of the world need to blow in a particular region. A regional language of wider communication, and obviously English, will have to form part of the diet that schooling must provide to our indigenous peoples. But the educational experiments show that only if the academic content is provided over the first few years in the first language and later in a judiciously created bi- or multilingual cuisine, suited to the individual learning styles of the children, can healthy cognitive growth be ensured. Furthermore, the school needs to introduce regional and global languages of wider communication in very carefully calibrated ways if the fragile fabric being woven is not to be damaged by callous and thoughtless handling.

Well, of course you are wary of such proposals after seeing what happened in West Bengal, where wonderful results were promised but never surfaced. I understand your anxiety, and your indignation; I recognize the need for a long-term post mortem process. What happened in West Bengal has to do in large part with the teaching of English initiated at the secondary school level. In a scenario where such teaching is seriously planned, and the teachers who deliver it are given thoughtful training and equipped with the necessary tools, the policy format that West Bengal tried to implement in the eighties does not become synonymous with failure. The failure that hit you in West Bengal was in large part a cascade effect, and you will never understand it if you do not take a closer look at what has or has not been happening in the premier English language teacher training institutions of our country, far from Kolkata, but with grave consequences for the cognitive health of West Bengal's children.

But this is only part of the diagnosis we need. Part of the problem lies in West Bengal itself, where the discovery of learning -- and the corresponding loss of faith in vertical teaching -- has yet to occur. Knowledge is not created by major authors of books and journal articles and disseminated in watered down versions through didactic pontifications in classrooms where `good students' take notes to be memorized -- contrary to convictions that the elite of West Bengal and its scions abroad have never outgrown. The emergence of knowledge takes place, when it does, in the minds of learners as they learn, and teachers can help only if they are practised in the circumspect and indirect maieutic art of bringing such learning about. Major books and journal articles are important, but only as sources of inspiration; to imagine that their content can be disseminated in any direct sense is to seriously misread the traffic of cognition.

Only if our public begins to understand this, and to take seriously what they understand instead of getting frothily agitated over non-issues, will there be zero tolerance for classrooms where one teacher is asked to teach more than twenty-five children at a time. Obviously teachers have no opportunity to bring out anybody's learning potential in absurdly overpopulated classrooms.

I suppose you will tell me you have heard this before. Well, I am not so sure that you have. Influential voices pontificating recently about the educational scene here -- and I have been listening to them with some care -- seem not to recommend zero tolerance for overpopulated classrooms. The usual sermon skips fifteen steps in the argument and mentions the abysmal poverty that causes rural schools to function with just one teacher and a couple of hundred children, and what have you. Now, we all agree that under emergency conditions, which prevail all the time in many rural settings in contemporary India, teachers are forced to take emergency measures in order to keep their cool, with often terrible consequences for themselves and their students. And we do need to find a way out of this disaster. But how do you expect to get anywhere on that front if you do not even begin to diagnose, in your daily griping, what is unacceptable about the middle class urban schools whose administrations you are willing to pamper in order to get your children into what you still conceptualize as a rat race? If our urban public, by continuing to be thoughtless, keeps itself chained to the same emergency level as our lamentably crisis-laden rural milieux, and if articulators of public issues who speak to captive audiences miss every opportunity to advise our modern prince to change things in the cities so that our city-bred teachers can make a difference in the countryside, then where exactly do you expect the positive transformation to get started?

Oh I see, you now complain that the communication with me will break down because I am losing my cool, are you? Well, your practice in the art of complaining is of course boundless, and I immediately grant your point. Okay, okay, I lost my cool, please stop conversing with me forthwith. There is this non-linguist friend of mine that you seem willing to talk to -- why not move to his writings instead, shall we? I do not even need to name him, you will recognize him from my references.

In his most celebrated writings this friend of mine writes that the greatest wrinkle in language is that it enables us to imagine what is known not to be real and in some cases not even to be possible. Those writings are in English, but he has recently published in Bangla as well, and manages a non-fortress linguistic home, friendly and open to all comers. He is known for keeping his cool; I am sure you will enjoy talking to him. Permit me to suggest that you take a leaf out of his book. He spoke of imagining. When your forefathers moved into English, claiming to be using it against the Englishmen then in power, they were imagining a world that used that language but was moving towards demonstrably fair and sustainable ways of ensuring linguistic, intellectual and affective welfare. Inheriting as you do the legacy of such forefathers -- and even a foremother or two -- you are surely able, and may some day be willing, to imagine an open space, with your fortress replaced by a mingling of Englishness with humanness, and with new arrangements in place that make English a means of inclusion rather than exclusion. If my friend's words move you into such a cosmos, it will not matter that you listened to his words and not to mine!