16 January 2014

Is language like science...?

Quite often, when I talk about the rules of language, I find I get hit with the response "Language isn't like science!" When I talk about teaching language systematically, people say "Language isn't like science." When I talk about language in schools, I'm told it's destined to fail because "Language isn't like science."

Well, I'm in the middle of trying to sort through a lot of old stuff that had been stored in the loft, and I came across a piece of paper on which I had hastily scrawled the following:
Language isn't like science.
It's about choosing the rules, not knowing the rules.
Now this is not a statement of my belief; rather it's my attempt to understand the logic behind the statement, so for anyone other than myself to get my full meaning requires a bit more explanation.

The reason people say "language isn't like science" is because of their misconception of the nature of science. To them, science has been presented as a series of rules to be memorised. They have been conditioned to think that the end goal of science is to be able to regurgitate the rules on demand, because that's all that was required of them in school.

That is not science.

Science is the art of investigating natural phenomena and finding explanations and models for them. These explanations and models are mostly a combination and application of existing scientific rules, and sometimes of identifying and creating new rules.

Or to put it another way: science is not about the knowledge of rules, it's about the application of rules.

But would the same statement not hold for language too? Language is not about the knowledge of rules (we can all agree on that) but the application of rules, surely?

Science is very often taught badly, in that there is such a focus on the rules themselves that students never get the chance to integrate those rules into a working body of scientific knowledge. This leaves the student able to recall the rule or law by name, but not recall the rule when addressed with a problem that requires that rule in order to reach a solution. You cannot solve a useful scientific problem this way -- the only type of problem that can tell you explicitly which rules are required to solve it is a problem that has already been solved, and science is about creating new knowledge, not repeating the known ad nauseum.

A good course in science will instead train the student in identifying the characteristics of a problem domain and noticing patterns that relate to particular laws or rules: they will teach them how to select the appropriate rule for the given situation.

That, I contest, is the very same process we go through when we try to formulate an utterance. We have a bank of words and grammatical rules at our disposal, and we have to select the appropriate items from it to express the message that we want.

So language is a lot like science, and the objections typically raised against grammar teaching are systemic problems that also affect science teaching. It's a problem that the late, great Richard Feynman recounted in his memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman?, when he talks of his experience on sabbatical placement in Brazil. It's a problem that affects all education systems to a greater or lesser extent.

But the problem comes when reformers attempt to throw the baby out with the bathwater: "rules teaching has failed," they tell us, "so we need to do away with rules."

That, to me, is a ridiculous philosophy. How can you choose which rule to apply if you don't know what rules exist? How can you search for it if you don't know what it is?

Let's be clear, I do not have to be able to recite the present tense endings of regular -ARE verbs in Latin in order to usefully "know" the rule, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't be taught them. I initially learned Spanish, for example, by the explicit teaching of the endings, and the explicit teaching of rules like 2s = 3s+"s" and 3p=3s+"n" (NB: this is my notation, not the way I was taught the rule!), and not by memorising the list of conjugations or a table. But that was still explicit teaching. I did not learn by osmosis, I did not learn by exposure, I did not learn by magic. I was told what my range of choices was, then given sufficient opportunities to make those decisions that I eventually could make the decision subconsciously.

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