The Decline and Fall of the English Language

I was going to blog last month about how a BBC2 documentary found that 80% of Britons cannot recite a single verse of poetry. This is not helped by the fact 58% pupils never study poetry in school. Not a line. The ones who do read Carol Ann Duffy, the Scottish lesbian who was just named the new Poet Laureate. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with Miss Duffy’s poetry, but reading a single living poet does not constitute a sufficient literary education.

Like I said, I was going to blog about it, but I’d just be whinging once again about the state of education in this country. Then yesterday I was having a conversation with a couple of 14-year-olds. It start with me telling off one of them for using a participle that is an inappropriate term derived from an innocuous noun. He had no idea what a participle is. Okay, that’s not a big surprise. I probably didn’t learn about participles until at least the 9th grade, maybe even the 10th.

The disturbing thing is that neither he nor his friend knew what a noun is. This is something I learned well before the 5th grade, because by then we were parsing sentences. Now with the average 14-year-old, I have trouble getting them to write in sentences. I had a 16-year-old who handed in an entire 1500-word coursework without using a single mark of punctuation. I’m not exaggerating. But back to the boys in Year 9. . .

They had heard the term “noun” before. They just couldn’t agree on what it was. One of them thought it was a “doing” word. The other thought it was a “describing” word. He contended it couldn’t be a “doing” word, because that was an adverb.  These were not pupils in the bottom English set. They were not pupils with special educational needs. Because I was teaching a mixed-ability group, there was a top-set girl who actually knew that a noun was a “naming” word.

No poetry, no grammar. Is it the end of the English language or the end of civilisation?

One thinks of Eliot. . .

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends

No, wait. That would be trite  to anyone who has seen this over-used reference to Eliot.  And on the other hand, clearly it would be lost upon anyone with a secondary education in Britain in the last decade. I believe the general response would be, “T. S. who?”

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7 Responses to “The Decline and Fall of the English Language”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    Sol,
    I think that many of them will have been exposed to one of TS Eliot’s works , albeit indirectly via a highly circuitous route, providing they watched Britain’s Got Talent, LOL.

    Susan Boyle did sing “Memory” from Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Musical “Cats” which is loosely derived from TS Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”.

    Not that they will know or care, in most cases……………which is a shame.

    My class studied Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” for “O”level English and we were required to know it and many other works off by heart by the age of 15.
    It still sends shivers down my spine now when I think of it …..

  2. sol Says:

    Most of the teens probably didn’t notice Susan Boyle’s song, because they were waiting for the dance acts – hence Miss Boyle’s runner-up finish in the final. But that is about as close as they get to Eliot.

    I can still recite Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43” of Sonnets from the Portuguese, though I have to admit that after 30 years I can only recall snippets of Mark Antony’s funeral oration from Julius Caesar.

  3. Laura Says:

    Over on this side of the pond, kids are diagramming sentences again and learning to read phonically. I don’t about the poetry part, yet, but I’m hoping to expose my guys to a little myself….

  4. Steve Says:

    I did learn grammar at school, and must have been quite good at it because English was my best subject, but I must admit that I’ve forgotten what a participle is.

    The sad thing though is that those teenagers will probably grow up to propagate biz-speak and bureaucratese.

  5. Rd. Kevin Says:

    Don’t give up hope! I’m 19 and my summer reading list includes The Divine Comedy, The Illiad, and The Complete Dialogues of Plato. All is not lost for this generation!

  6. sol Says:

    There is always a remnant.

  7. James Says:

    Your all talking utter rubbish. At a time when students are getting better grades than ever, you’re complaining about kids not talking English properly, but in all honesty they are probably doing it better than how most kids were speaking in your generation. Just look back to when you was a kid, take off those rose tinted glasses and remember all those idiots that would’ve been in your school. It’s the same with my school there will always be the thick students. And remember, kids will grow up, sometimes they put on an act in front of there friends saying that they don’t know something when they actually do. One last thing, stop being derogatory towards my generation, we’ve all been there. Yours sincerely a 16 year old


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