What the grammar gurus don’t get about how we learn

Sticklers beware. marymuses, CC BY-NC-SA

Sticklers beware. The British Library is hosting it’s English Grammar Day, a day to finely split hairs over split infinitives, apostrophe’s (sic, sic, sic), and Oxford commas (sick!). Yes, in the case of written language, the ability to follow a set of arbitrary, complex and often-contradictory rules is probably as good a marker as any of intelligence and educational attainment. (And, yes, those were deliberate mistakes to annoy the sticklers!).

But what some grammar gurus forget is that the vast majority of language is not written, but spoken. Talk to a researcher who studies grammar in its natural habitat, and they will tell you that by just two years of age, children already have a deep understanding of grammar, far exceeding anything that our most powerful supercomputers can currently achieve.

What is grammar, anyway?

There’s a saying in journalism that DOG BITES MAN isn’t a story, but MAN BITES DOG most certainly is. What’s interesting about these headlines is that while they consist of exactly the same words, their meanings are reversed. This difference in meaning is down to the grammar: the set of rules and procedures that puts words in whatever order is necessary to get across “who did what to whom”. This is grammar; the engine room of language. Commas and apostrophes are just deckchairs on the poop deck.

And children know how to steer this ship not only way, way before they can tie their own shoelaces, but – in some cases – before the point at which they are saying anything much beyond “Mama” and “Dada” (or my own first word: “Calpol” … allegedly).

Suppose you sit a young child down in front of two TV screens, one showing a duck doing something to a rabbit, the other showing a rabbit doing something to a duck. If you then play a sentence such as: “The bunny is glorping the duck”, even two-year-olds are able to look at or even point to the matching screen. Because “glorping” is a made-up word, we know that children weren’t simply using their knowledge of individual words, but must have formed some kind of abstract rule; the same rule that renders MAN BITES DOG, but not DOG BITES MAN, a plausible headline.

We all start young

A few years down the line, one of my own studies found that, when asked to rate the grammatical acceptability of made-up words and sentences (such as: “Every day the bunny splings. So yesterday he splinged/splang”) six-year-olds showed the same pattern of judgments as students at one of the world’s top ten universities.

Oxford Comma. The band Vampire Weekend have clearly expressed their dislike. Status Frustration, CC BY-NC-SA

But, when it comes to grammar-learning, six-year-olds are geriatrics, with even two-year-olds rapidly heading towards middle age. Children show knowledge of the rhythms of their native language – one of the cues that allows them to break into grammar – when they are just two days old. In fact, another study found that newborns prefer to listen to stories that had been read to them before birth.

So, yes, English Grammar Day serves a valuable function, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. The real tragedy isn’t adults who confuse its and it’s, there and they’re or to and too, but infants who hear so little spoken language from their parents that they start school or nursery at a huge disadvantage compared to their peers. If we are serious about improving grammar at a national level, it is here that our efforts must be focused.