The Grammarian

As I was reading my classmates’ blog post today, I was inspired by a very interesting one that you can read here.

Jessica points out the fact that, reading Pinker’s prologue of The Sense of Style, she just had no idea what the Passive Voice was, though she is an English major and, I guess, has been speaking English for her whole life.

The first time I faced this kind of situation was actually a few months ago, when I was still in France. I am taking a translation class that involves as many French students (who are learning English) as English exchange students (who are learning French). At the beginning of the class, the teacher hands out a text and we have to “cooperate” altogether to produce the best translation possible. Very interestingly, we usually find ourselves explaining that this or that tense would suit better in English as a translation of this or that French tense, why you should use the present perfect in this case and the passive voice in this one. Most of the English students would look at their French partner with incredulous eyes. Present what? Why the heck do these French teenagers know better than us how to use our own language?

Inversely, I am presently working for the French department as a language assistant. I assist a French teacher in his class. I feel that I am losing all credibility when I found myself unable to explain the students how to use the subjunctive mood. Err.. I mean, we use it because it sounds better in some sentences, there is no explanation, it’s just the way it is! Stop annoying me with these questions!!! More seriously – I might get fired if someone repeat that so I rely on your discretion here – I just don’t know! So instead, I secretly grab my phone and look it up on Google, learn new things about my own mother-tongue, and then pretend I knew that from the beginning (whereas it’s a big lie and I actually feel very stupid and ignorant for the rest of the class).

The process of learning your native language is not based on learning rules or naming what you use to communicate. You learn by listening to it constantly and your brain naturally deduce in which case to use such and such tense or mood. When you are learning a foreign language however, you NEED to know these things for they are probably different from your own language. You cannot use the language that you learn the same way you use the one you speak, and this is basically the reason why your language teacher annoy you so much with those exercices that aim at turning you into a grammar expert.

Thus, I can easily name any English tenses and list their functions. However, I am absolutely unable to do it in French. So I might knew what the passive voice was, but Jessica is much more of an expert than me when it comes to mastering English.

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