The Meaning of Mammoths

          Here’s a little domestic scene for you.

          A warm kitchen. The smell of baking. Sunlight spills through a window, lighting the bright scarlet petals of a potted geranium.

          In the centre of the room, a mother has fastened her small child into a high-chair so it can’t get away, while she croons to it. “Conjugate the irregular verb, to be. I am, you are, he is, she is, they are. How do we form the past tense? I was, you were, he was, she was, they were. And the future tense? I shall be – or should we use ‘will’? I will be, you will be, he will be…’

          This is how we all learned to speak our first language, isn’t it?

          Or try this.

          Mother (as she shows the child a banana): Do you want some banana? Do you? Banana? (Showing the banana again.) Banana. Mmm! (Pleased happy expression on her face, as she peels the banana.) Do you want a bite of banana? (Takes a bite of banana.) Mmm! Nice! Banana’s are nice! Do you want some? Do you want some? (Offering banana.)

          By the end of the meal, the child recognises the word, ‘banana’ and knows what object it is linked to. It also has an idea of what ‘want’ means.

          As far as I understand it (I don’t claim to be an expert) this is Functional Grammar in action. This is how we all learn our languages. (In exactly the same way my cat learned what the word 'brush' meant, after just two evenings, because he enjoyed being brushed so much. The word, the object and the experience united in his catty brain, never to be separated again.)

          Because language isn’t about rules of grammar. It isn’t about plu-perfects and subjunctives. It’s about communicating between members of a social group. At perhaps its simplest – but certainly not least important – level, its purpose is to enable a child to tell its mother it’s hungry.
          Language didn't evolve in classrooms, after all. It evolved on the savannah, and on the tundra. When it's cold and you're all hungry, it's vitally important to be able to tell your fellow gatherers exactly where that clump of reeds with the nutritious, starchy roots are to be found. And, when you're hunting a mammoth, who is pissed off, communicating the plan clearly to your fellow-hunters is more important than whether or not you split the infinitive.
          You might say that Traditional or Conventional Grammar is about proving how educated you are; and how well you've learned the rules - whereas language (and Functional Grammar) is about  meaning and communication. (Though the meaning it communicates may well be more than the sense of the words: social standing, for instance.)

          ‘Banana’ is a 'block of meaning.' In English, those sounds are attached to and signify a particular fruit.

          ‘Do you want’ is another block of meaning. It’s useful, because a great many other blocks of meaning can be clipped on to the end of it: an apple, a cup of tea, a sandwich, a pencil, a chair.

Do you want an apple?

                   a chair?

                           a cup of tea?

Mrs Price wants an apple

                       a chair

                                a cup of tea.

          In learning language in this way, the child is far frompassive. It is not pinned in its high-chair (or behind a desk), memorising lists of vocabulary or learning rules about ‘describing words’ and ‘doing words’, because that's the task it's been given.
           The child doesn't even know it's learning. It is thoroughly engaged and involved in the world around it. The child wants that banana.  My cat really wanted to be brushed.

          The child learns because that’s what interested, curious intelligent creatures do – especially if there’s some kind of reward involved, such as food, praise or  respect.
          Learning, after all, is a survival trait.

          Introducing boredom to learning is like dosing someone with a tranquiliser and then expecting them to learn as well and as easily. 
          We’ve all experienced it: trying to complete a boring task is the mental equivalent of trying to shift a heavy weight or wade through deep mud. We do it, when we have to; but boredom isn't the best aid to learning.
          Adding confusion doesn’t improve matters.
‘This form of a verb is typically used for what is imagined, wished or possible. It is usually the same as the ordinary or indicative, except in the third person singular, where the normal –s ending is omitted. In English this form usually denotes a formal tone.’  OED.
          None of you, of course, fail to recognise the subjunctive from this description. (What I want to know is, once you've removed the 'imagined, wished or possible,' what's left?)
          More than one teacher of my acquaintance has told me that they’ve taught children who almost hear nothing from their families except, “Shut up,’ and ‘Get out my way.’ That's their vocabulary.
          Another told me, ‘The children I teach get everything and nothing from their parents – everything in the way of designer clothes and expensive gadgets, and nothing in the way of  attention or affection.” The vocabulary of these children is, 'Go away, I'm busy.'
          I count myself hugely lucky to be able to say of my parents that they gave me everything and nothing – everything in the way of attention and affection, and nothing in the way of designer clothes and expensive gadgets. 
          Lucky children like me rapidly acquire ‘blocks of meaning’, and rapidly learn how these blocks can be taken apart and fitted together with other blocks, because the child hears these blocks of meanings used around it all the time. It observes how the people around it respond to these sounds. Often the blocks of meaning are carefully demonstrated to the child, as when a parent shows the child a toy, names the toy, and asks if the child wants it. (‘Heres Teddy. Do you wantTeddy? Would you like to play with Teddy?)
          The child finds that it can exert power over its surroundings and family by learning to ask for what it wants. The family reward the child by being pleased, and praising its efforts. 
          There may be some bargaining between the parent and child. ‘What’s the magic word? – Say ‘please’ first.’ – ‘If you’re good today, we may go to the park tomorrow.’
           They also teach the child that there are different ways of speaking - that 'I want' is good enough for Mum and Dad, but 'Please may I - ?' and 'Thank you,' must always be used with other people. The child may be told, 'That's a naughty word. Daddy and Mummy may say it when they're angry, but you must never say it.'
          This is not merely Mummy and Daddy being mealy-mouthed. This is Mummy and Daddy teaching their child that social communication has many variations, and you must often change your words to suit the context. An example: a man entering pub is greeted with a shout of, "You (Expletive deleted.") The shout may have come from an enemy or his greatest friend. The meaning is entirely dependent on context - and might not be acceptable anywhere other than the pub.
          The children we call 'bright' are often those children lucky enough to live in a stimulating environment, where there is a lot to interest them, and where their interest is rewarded and stimulated anew. ‘You like the cat?” says the parent. ‘Then let’s look at lions, tigers, leopards – let’s mention the Ancient Egyptions worshipping them – and let’s have a look at wolves and elephants for good measure.’
          It doesn’t really matter whether the child remembers all it's told – sufficient that it is interested, and finds learning to be a positive, rewarding experience that it will be eager to engage in again.

          But the question is, when you meet a bright, chattery child, who gleefully lectures you on dinosaurs or the habits of ants – is it because that child is ‘naturally’ more intelligent than its ‘duller’ neighbour who doesn’t even know what dinosaurs are?
          And if that's so, how do you explain that the child who can't remember anything taught in class, can effortlessly learn countless categories of Packemon creatures?
          Is the difference, perhaps, entirely due to the amount of encouragement and stimulus the child receives from its social group, whether that's its family or its peer-group in the playground?

          And what is the best way, in formal education, of teaching both these children to read, and speak another language?


          Blott is away for the next two weeks, sunning himself in Egypt.
          But here - to please Madwippet - is a clip of Functional Grammar in action. Betsy has mastered 300 words and their meanings!

     Betsy's owners, we're told, didn't initially try to train her. They found that she picked up the names of objects and associated them with the object simply by observation and repetition... It's estimated that she has the intelligence of, at least, a 2-year old child.

          And, if you're interested, you can find more about Functional Grammar, and teaching material here