to speak a better English

Kevin Drum writes:

This is one of the reasons I don’t blog much about education policy even though it’s an interesting subject. For all the sturm and drang, in the end nothing really seems to matter. After a hundred years of more-or-less rigorous pedagogical research, we still don’t know how to teach kids any better than we used to.

It may be that we’re not teaching kids any better but – especially when you look beyond the introductory levels – it’s clear that there has been quite a bit of progress in most of the subjects we teach kids. Arithmetic is still arithmetic, but mathematics has moved beyond where it was in the late 19th century (though I’d have to do a lot of learning to actually understand those developments). The same could be said of the sciences; there was a great quotation I saw online some time ago (but have never been able to track down since) from someone in the sciences that went something like: “It is sobering to think of how many students we’ve failed for not knowing things that later turned out to be incorrect.” And the social sciences may not, despite some claims to the contrary, be sciences in the way the life and physical sciences are sciences, but they’ve certainly progressed as well.

Even the humanities, where progress is harder to measure or even to define, are generally understood to have made advances. I confess that I’m not familiar enough with fields like English or Philosophy to be able to describe what counts as progress and what progress has been made, but if you look at history, at least, you’ll see that while interpretations have risen and fallen and sometimes risen again, and few have been overturned once and for all, history is also a cumulative endeavor and it’s kept on accumulating over the years with new sources, new types of sources, and new ways of looking at sources. We know more about the past in a lot of ways than we used to, even as we often disagree about what to make of that knowledge.

If there’s an exception to this trend it’s language – not, I should say, the study of language, which falls under the social sciences as linguistics, but language itself: a first language, second language, foreign language, whatever. (Note that the program that prompted Drum’s post was a reading program for kids: that is, a program teaching the English language.) Is the English I’m using right now meaningfully better than the English used in the late 19th century? Better than 18th century English? Is someone fluent in contemporary English more fluent in English than someone who lived in the 19th century and was fluent in the English of that era? (Let’s leave aside the entertaining possibility of being fluent in 19th century English while living in today’s world, something I hear can happen, to an extent, to people who’ve learned a language mostly from reading, or rather certain kinds of reading.)

It would be hard to say yes: English has changed, but those changes can’t really be understood as progress in the sense used above. The same could be said for just about any language, with the possible exception of ones made up from scratch. What one needs to know to be fluent – grammar, vocabulary, syntax – may change, but fluency remains the highest level of expertise (so to speak; “competence” might be a better word) one can acquire in a language.

I don’t really have anything to say about education policy or K-12 pedagogy, where language teaching is certainly not the only subject that hasn’t seen significant progress; I just think the way language differs from other subjects is interesting and Drum’s post happened to remind me of it.