Thursday 28 February 2013

On bringing books back from the grave

The correspondents that motivate these posts have multiplied over the past few weeks, as the realization dawns among teachers and students in the UK that grammar (or at least a Govian interpretation of grammar) is back. Leaving aside the question of how poorly the subject is being presented - that’s a topic for another day - I've been inundated with requests for advice about how to cope with the demands suddenly being placed upon teachers, many of whom have had little opportunity to accumulate the kind of knowledge they need to implement the directives. An email that came in this week was typical: its subject line was ‘The subjunctive - a cry for help’. And I write this post after talking to a ‘grammar day’ in Buckinghamshire - the first I suspect of several that will be organized this year, as English advisors try to assuage the grammar panic that I sense is widespread.

The first signs of this panic appeared following the publication of the draft documents last year. And it was then that I decided to reintroduce the wheel, in the form of the series I published at the request of Longman in the early 1990s, when the National Curriculum for English was first presented. It was called Language A to Z, and consisted of two student books (aimed at Key Stages 3 and 4) and a Teacher’s Book, containing an alphabetically ordered set of all the language terms mentioned in the government documents of the time - about 200 relating to grammar, and another 200 or so on other linguistic topics. In fact, the books ended up being used at all sort of levels, from KS2 to A-level. But this is all history, as Longman let them go out of print after a few years.

The situation today seems to be exactly the same as the situation in the early 1990s. There is a renewed concentration on terminology - ‘naming of parts’ - and a focus on structures, with a sad disregard for context, meaning, and use. Indeed, the clock has gone further back than that - more like it was in the 1960s. Regrettable as that is - and I don’t underestimate the importance (or the difficulty) of continuing to argue for change - the urgent question is how to help the situation for teachers right now. I've therefore spent the past few weeks revising and updating Language A to Z, and, thanks to the collaboration of the Librios publishing platform, making these available again as e-publications. The two e-books were launched today - a single integrated student book, and a companion teacher’s book - and they will also be shortly available as pdfs and as print-on-demand items.

My whole website is being redesigned, as a consequence, and things look a bit like a half-built house at the moment, but I wanted to get the books out there as quickly as possible, in the hope that they will help. They can be accessed here. In due course, other books requested from my out-of-print backlist will be made available in this way. The next two, which will be available later in March, will be Words on Words and Language Play. If the blogger link doesn't work, for inexplicable reasons, the URL is

Saturday 2 February 2013

On the Linguistics Olympiad

A correspondent writes to ask about the linguistic equivalent of the Olympic Games. He means the International Linguistics Olympiad. This is one of 12 International Science Olympiads, held annually since 2003. Each year, teams of young linguists from around the world gather to solve puzzles in language and linguistics. The last one, the 10th, was held in Slovenia, when 131 contestants in 34 teams represented 26 countries. This year, the event will be hosted in Manchester, 22-27 July. Information can be found at Linguistics Olympiad.

The puzzles are great fun. What happens is that teams are presented with a chunk of linguistic data from a language - in the last Olympiad, data from Dyirbal, Umbu-Ungu, Basque, Teop, Rotuman, and Lao - and the challenge is to find the system behind the words. For example, you might be given a set of verbs containing regular and irregular forms, and you have to work out what's going on.You don't need to be a linguistics specialist to solve the problems. As the organizers say: ‘No prior knowledge of linguistics or languages is required: even the hardest problems require only your logical ability, patient work, and willingness to think around corners’. And there are some past problems at the website to illustrate the point.

Dick Hudson, who’s on the UK organizing committee, tells me that British involvement started only recently, but numbers of participants have hugely increased, from 500 in 2010 to nearly 6000 this year. The British Olympiad has three levels of difficulty, so it can reach pupils as young as 12 as well as the more advanced sixth-formers. There’s been a really enthusiastic response, apparently, but the event still isn't as widely known as it ought to be - hence this post.

When teaching linguistics at Bangor and Reading, we used to set ‘morphology problems’ each week. They’re fun, because they are a close encounter with the reality of languages, in all their glorious irregularity. And nothing, to my mind, beats the satisfaction of solving one.