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 be
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.
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 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
A. Grote's Study Guide to Wheelock's
. 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
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