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Occasional Book Reviews

 
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fluffyhamster



Joined: 13 Mar 2005
Posts: 3292
Location: UK > China > Japan > UK again

PostPosted: Wed Jul 22, 2015 8:40 pm    Post subject: Occasional Book Reviews Reply with quote

Well, in this first post, sort of only half a review so far. Cool

That is, I'm trying to finish a book that I've mentioned before ( http://forums.eslcafe.com/teacher/viewtopic.php?p=45956#45956 ), called English for the Natives: Discover the Grammar You Don't Know You Know by Harry Ritchie, but it's become if anything a bit dry in the actual grammar chapters. Although I've flicked through the rest of the book, I'm currently still on and chugging through the first of those grammar chapters, headed 'Nouns'. Now, I like seeing how grammar points are ultimately contextualized if not explained from one teacher to the next (e.g. as in Murphy, "versus" Swan's at least more practice-y tomes), but short of actual sentences, a load of discrete, rather decontextualized vocabulary items can start getting a bit boring to wade through while awaiting whatever points, especially when (as the author's title reminds us) this is stuff you as a native speaker already know. That is, what I want to know is how would he teach all this to a non-native. Just giving them the book would assume a level at which they too knew it all, again making the read-through a tad redundant (fun though that may be for some: "Ooh yes, I know that, and that, and that, in fact I know all this! How interesting!").

The main thing I'm trying to figure out then is quite what the author means exactly by (this) 'grammar'. In the Introduction (which wasn't that strong an opening, felt a bit glibly written just like a lot of other popular treatments) he alluded to his experience of teaching EFL in a language school in Oxford, where he sat himself down with a copy of Thomson & Martinet and apparently had a bit of an epiphany going through especially its chapter on verb complementation (i.e. which verbs take [to-]infinitives and/or -ings). From then on it became his mission (seeing as nothing had appeared even decades later) to present that sort of stuff (detail?) to the great grammatically-unwashed British public, who are still being fobbed off with undoubted rubbish like Gwynne's Grammar (a book that Gove loves, says it all really), published in 2013 but whose bibliography mainly relies on late-Victorian, 1880-1890s grammars.

But who does the author quite mean when, on page 77 of that Nouns chapter, he says (my italics) 'Unnoticed by most grammarians, English's possessive is also applied to some non-possessing circumstances, including time periods ('in five years' time'), artistic creations ('Handel's Messiah'), and family relations ('my mother's cousin'), where an 'of' construction would be either odd or, particularly with those time periods, impossible'. (Incidentally, the author has quite a liking for that arguably often superfluous genitive: '...let's skip blithely on to the forms that English's nouns take. Theoretically, these could be simpler, but not by much. For a start, English's nouns aren't...' [pg 72]; 'Traditionally, at this point there would be a mention of the gender distinctions in some of English's nouns' [pg 73]; 'The third learner-friendly feature of English's nouns is that they operate a laughably simple case system' [pg 75]; 'Modern English's nouns now have two case forms' [pg 77], and so on. Other readers may not bat an eyelid at this tic, but IMHO a bit of variety in the phrasing would surely be welcome).

Is 'grammarian' there meant to be taken as a pejorative term, reserved only for pre-T&M stuffy Latin-aping Victorians, or is his statement implying that even some modern TEFL grammars may be found wanting (though none of the ones I've consulted have been in this particular regard)? Presumably the author means the former, but as he often doesn't quite define his terms or bother to explain himself more clearly, and supplies certainly very few TEFL references (there are only occasional footnotes, and no bibliography nor index), it's hard to be sure, and his efforts so far have been dedicated to sketching English's Proto-Indo-European roots, and beyond that, language's necessarily conjectural origins (IMHO all very interesting, but as several Amazon reviewers have said, quite incidental to the here-and-now aims of a grammar), and then to demolishing Chomskyan linguistics in favour of more empirical/less "rationalist", through to connectionist models (fine in my book, but about the only common strand linking even these theories to ELT is Corpus Linguistics, which is a tool rather than a theory, and thus pretty much neutral with regard to anything other than corpus design and use). The author would presumably be surprised about how sniffy even the more empirical and practically-oriented of theoretical linguists~grammarians can be about LT and what they may perceive as "non-committal" grammars (see for example Sampson's comments in especially his Schools of Linguistics [pp10-11] about Applied Linguistics https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=R22mAAAAIAAJ&q=applied#v=snippet&q=applied&f=false , and Pullum's comments regarding the LGSWE http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001464.html ). Anyway, I'm surprised to see no mention of e.g. Systemic-Functional approaches.

For what it's worth, here are the most relevant references that the author cites (and these amount to around half the total number):

Biber et al, LGWSE (Pearson 1999)
Chomsky, The Architecture of Language (OUP 2000)
Deacon, The Symbolic Species (1997)
Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language (2005)
Elman et al, Rethinking Innateness (MIT 1996)
Everett, Language: The Cultural Tool (2012)
Huddleston & Pullum, CGEL (CUP 2002)
Thomson & Martinet, A Practical English Grammar (4th edn, OUP 1986)
Nadeau, The Neural Architecture of Grammar (MIT 2012)
Pinker, The Language Instinct (1994)
Pinker, Words and Rules (1999)
Pullum, '50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice' (CHE, April 2009)
Sampson, The 'Language Instinct' Debate (Continuum 2005)
Tomasello, Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition (Harvard 2003)
Tomasello, Origins of Human Communication (MIT 2008)

In short then, this would seem among other things an attempt to outline the author's intellectual leanings and "chops" (even if those leanings are perhaps irrelevant or don't quite link up to ELT as yet), and to go into a bit more (but ultimately item-list) detail than most idiot's guides to grammar usually do. Whether the idiots will appreciate that remains to be seen, but I have a feeling that this won't overall prove to be quite the "superb primer" for EFL purposes that one reviewer reckons it could be. Like I say, it isn't quite detailed (contextualizing) enough for actual teaching, and would be too dry for many a non-native learner rather than actual reader, and it simply isn't joining the theoretical to practical dots explicitly enough (big deal, he devoured an EFL grammar back in the 80s and has since been reading around in linguistics, so...?).

Anyway, I'll try to finish it and see if my opinion about it becomes more positive overall. I like the author's theoretical inclinations, and I'm sure the odd point about the grammar will be of interest and value, but from my (an EFL teacher's perspective) this book is neither fish nor fowl, and seems only of marginal interest, just like many other language books aimed at a general audience turn out to be. It certainly doesn't give non-teachers much let alone enough idea of what is involved in ELT (assuming that was indeed one of the main things that the author was trying to achieve).


Last edited by fluffyhamster on Fri Jul 24, 2015 6:02 am; edited 5 times in total
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spiral78



Joined: 05 Apr 2004
Posts: 11523
Location: On a Short Leash

PostPosted: Wed Jul 22, 2015 9:07 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Can you find a book that addresses addiction to parenthetical expressions?
Wink
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fluffyhamster



Joined: 13 Mar 2005
Posts: 3292
Location: UK > China > Japan > UK again

PostPosted: Wed Jul 22, 2015 11:02 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Look on the bright side, at least they've given you something to respond to other than the content! Razz
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spiral78



Joined: 05 Apr 2004
Posts: 11523
Location: On a Short Leash

PostPosted: Wed Jul 22, 2015 11:31 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Like many other professionals in the field, I prefer to form my own impressions of the literature, independent of the natterings and criticisms of rodents;-)
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fluffyhamster



Joined: 13 Mar 2005
Posts: 3292
Location: UK > China > Japan > UK again

PostPosted: Wed Jul 22, 2015 11:57 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The literature? It's a mass-market, quite pulpy paperback. Rolling Eyes But by all means buy it if like me you want to read about at least PIE, and criticisms of Chomsky and the Pinkman. Razz
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Xie Lin



Joined: 21 Oct 2011
Posts: 731

PostPosted: Thu Jul 23, 2015 12:38 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thank you for starting this thread, Fluffy! I enjoy reading reviews and opinions of books that interest me, and I am always particularly interested in reviews that express opinions at odds with my own. I hope other posters will contribute, as well.

As for the Ritchie book, your review wouldn't discourage me from reading it; but "I'll try to finish it," is quite a telling comment! If I do take it on, I'll brace myself for those long, dry stretches. Very Happy
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fluffyhamster



Joined: 13 Mar 2005
Posts: 3292
Location: UK > China > Japan > UK again

PostPosted: Thu Jul 23, 2015 12:50 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

You're welcome, XL! Wink It'll be interesting to hear your (and indeed still Spiral's) comments if you do decide to get that book. I may as well finish it now I'm almost halfway through. Perhaps we could even start a screaming I mean reading group for it (only kidding, I don't think it's quite long or really dense enough for that!). Anyway, if I find anything that makes me alter my opinions thus far, I'll of course add something more to the thread. Until then, signing out...
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