18 May 2007

Description vs. Prescription: Finding the Balance

As I learn this new art of self-promotion, I find myself doing things out of my comfort zone. Waaaaaaay out of my comfort zone. My web designer suggested I join some ESL/EFL online forums, so I reluctantly signed up to a few, certain all manner of wackos would suddenly show up on my doorstep or worse, nothing would happen; it would all be just a colossal waste of my time.

Actually, one wacko did show up in my inbox, but what also happened was that I got addicted, addicted to answering questions about English, addicted to that high that teachers get when they feel they are genuinely helping someone. Although I am "a member" on a few sites, one is particularly active and I sometimes find myself there when I should be doing a million other things.

The great thing is, of course, that I can pick and choose the questions that interest me and that are in my field of knowledge. The downside is that, more often than not, one of my threads will become this relentless back-and-forth of "expert" opinion and some poor student who just needs an answer to last week's quiz is completely tossed aside like a cheap paper cup. The underlying issue in almost all of these wayward threads is prescriptivism.

Don't get me wrong. I love rules as much as the next prescriptivist; they make me feel secure and fuzzy and warm. I have sometimes been referred to as a grammar geek and what grammar keener doesn't embrace boundaries. The problem I see here is my esteemed online colleagues are overlooking the students' needs. Teachers of language quickly realise that there are "textbook" rules and then there are the "usage" realities in language practice; throw in regional and dialectal differences and a simple question about the present perfect becomes a cauldron of debate.

I am a teacher first and a linguist second and although the latter clearly informs the former, I try to recognize that when an ESL student is trying to sound like his native-speaking peers when ordering a beer at the pub, he is not interested in a lecture on the use of the subjunctive!