Me fail English? That’s unpossible

By Rhia Perkins

More than two billion people in the world speak English. It is an official language in more than 75 countries. Three-quarters of the world’s population writes its mail in English, and 80 per cent of electronically stored information worldwide is in English. Speakers of English as a first language number 375 million, and those who speak it as a second language count for another 375 million.

Why, then, is English spoken so poorly in countries where it is the dominant tongue? As more and more people learn English as a foreign language, the gaps in language training in countries like Canada and the U.S. become increasingly evident. Leaving the U.S. aside (did you see "Talking to Americans" this weekend?) let’s examine the grammatical state of the nation up north.

As a journalist and academic, I have opportunities to speak to all kinds of people with all levels of education, and have noted that the massacre of grammar is an everyday occurrence among even the most educated members of our society. As a language student, I speak frequently with individuals from other cultures, and while their accents may be thick and their vocabulary fuzzy, they speak English as the textbooks explain it–which may be the root of the problem here at home.

How many of us learned English as a language when we were at school? Put your hands up if you can diagram a sentence… What about identify transitive and intransitive verbs? Passive and active voice? The subjunctive? How many of those terms do you even know?

In the course of my educational career, I learned both French and Spanish from scratch, and I have to say that learning them by the book and by the rules has been my one and only salvation. Even if I make mistakes, I can still go back later and figure out what exactly was wrong. The vast majority of native speakers of English today lack that skill because they were never taught the rules. How, then, can they hope not to break them?

At the university level, it is usually too late to rectify the shortfalls of earlier education, and, as classes get bigger and bigger, much harder to notice them.

The media doesn’t help either. Every night on television, you will hear a TV presenter announcing that "a large amount of people" did or saw something, while "less and less" Canadians are going to the polls with each election. Ten points to the first person who can tell me what’s wrong with each of those sentences!

It’s probably too late for our generation to recapture the basics of our language (though a good ESL book couldn’t hurt anyone!) but it’s time to get English lessons back into our schools and rescue our language from disagreement with itself.


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