On being, doing and having.
My parents valued language, it was a dear commodity at home, and I grew up surrounded by books and adults who could, and did, read and who could, and did, voice opinions on what they read. Television arrived in our household long after the printed word had stolen my heart and captured my imagination.
Thanks to this preparation, plus one year at a private Montessori school, by the time I arrived at my state-run primary school at the age of four, I could read and write. School was strict and an A grade in any subject was hard-won. It was a war I was willing to wage for the English language (especially as my mother took a very dim view of low marks, indeed).
Within the subject of English, marks were awarded for ‘Reading’, ‘Composition Oral/ Written’, ‘Spelling’ and ‘English Progress’. Teachers’ handwritten comments did not have to match the mark awarded – you could be described as ‘outstandingly good’ and still receive a B (as I did). It took until I was nine to get As across the board: ‘An excellent year’s work has been concluded with test results which are outstanding for a child of Jane’s age’.
Thereafter, my English marks didn’t fall below B+ (apart from one year when my class teacher was trying to persuade my mother I needed private tuition; tuition from that same teacher, of course). On reaching junior school, I gained A for effort and 1 for achievement in English all the way and from there was sent on my way to high school at the age of 13. By this time, I’d already had several years of French tuition at home (from my mother) and at school. I’d taken to that, too.
Now, here’s the thing – the way we were taught both languages was very different. At the outset, English was taught by rote – methodical reading, copying and testing. Correct spelling was highly prized. Slowly but surely, however, politics eroded my English language learning. I increasingly fell back upon the knowledge of my privately-educated mother to fill in the ever-growing chasm between teachers who maintained that grammar was a dirty word and my desire to know more of the language I loved.
By the time I was 14, the closest to an English grammar explanation a pupil could drag out of any teacher in public was that a verb was ‘a doing word’. Desperate for enlightenment, I followed my Latin and French classes with increasing fervour – here, we were being shown into the secret workings of language. Thanks to the grammar translation and audio-lingual methodology then being used to teach those languages, the ‘just express yourself!’ exhortations of successive English ‘teachers’ faded away. I was weaned from my mother’s parsing of sentences (for which, I remain thankful) the day I realized a gerund was not a mutant rodent companion for my sister’s hamster.
I have since spent time teaching English to speakers of other languages, many of whose knowledge of the inner workings of their own language (thanks to state education systems which value their pupils’ intelligence) has helped them greatly in acquiring the new one. In the process, I continued my own education – still striving to improve on the paucity of information doled out almost reluctantly at school.
On being, doing and having. My language; understanding to make it mine.