kitchen table math, the sequel: New Year

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Year

I've been mulling this year's resolutions. So far I'm thinking they may have to be mostly about 2 of the kids:
  • daily PSAT prep for C. (which means daily math, mostly)
  • daily GrammarTrainer for Andrew (we were going great guns until I fell off the wagon)
  • teach Andrew to pedal a bike (so not looking forward to that one)
Still need a resolution for me. Possibly: make enough money to pay somebody else to do test prep. That would be good.

Actually, this is the one I'm gearing up for:
A year ago, the Lincoln, Neb., artist and writer was so disorganized that she spent much of her time looking for misplaced supplies in her office clutter. To find all the Web sites where she had posted her artwork, "I often had to Google my own name," she says. But she made a resolution last New Year's Day to get organized, and now, a year later, she is sticking to it. With the clutter gone and her deadlines and routines under control, she says, "my life is so much easier."

A Cheat Sheet for Making New Year's Resolutions
by Sue Shellenbarger

Speaking of office clutter, we bought Billy bookshelves at Ikea today. The corner combination. So, clearly, I need a resolution to go with.

And, speaking of resolve, I am now basically a strict vegetarian.* Well, strict except for the Swedish meatballs. I've lost 7 pounds.

It took me three months to stop eating meat, chicken, fish, dairy, eggs, refined carbohydrates, salt, and olive oil,** but after a quarter century of trying I still can't organize my office.

That is preposterous.


* I refuse to use the word 'vegan' in public.
** still eating some salt & vegetable oil

63 comments:

jindi said...

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farmwifetwo said...

I'm going to keep cooking from different recipes not the "same old".

And going to learn to do what I can - boys homework - and stop worrying about the rest... Haven't mastered that in 10yrs... :) But I'm going to keep trying.

Crimson Wife said...

Catherine- what reading level is a prerequisite for the "Grammar Trainer" software? That looks really interesting for my DS. He doesn't have ASD but the speech therapist he worked with does suspect CAPD. A lot of the lessons in GT look like the stuff he did in therapy before we had to stop due to a switch in health insurance.

I'm such a curriculum follower of you, LOL! We're finishing up the elementary Killgallon grammar book (awesome), in the middle of the Paragraph Book (ditto), and we're going to be switching to Singapore Math in a few weeks once my DD is finished up with her current math book.

Barry Garelick said...

Speaking of resolutions, there's still time to order your
electric plastic wrap dispenser.

Sr. luba said...

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Barry Garelick said...

Geez, I hope Sr. luba wasn't following MY lead!

Genevieve said...

Happy New Year.

I've been following this blog since last spring. I want to thak you guys for bringing Singapore Math to my attention (My daughter's school uses TERC).

We have had a great experience with Singapore Math. My New Year's Resolution is to work with her on her reading. I need some help.

She is a first grader in the highest reading group at school. However, over break while she was reading her school book. She was really struggling and I found out at school she is allowed to guess what words are. They also read in unison, so I don't think the teacher is catching when she isn't able to read a word.

I would like some suggestions to help her, so that she doesn't pick up/continue bad habits. Its hard to complain to the school when she is already reading well above grade level (The book sent home was a level L).

Jo Anne C said...

"I would like some suggestions to help her, so that she doesn't pick up/continue bad habits"

My advice; don't rely on the school to do the job.

I had my son read out loud for 20-30 minutes everyday. This allowed me to see where the problems were.

I used phonics flash cards I got from an office supply store ($3.00) to master sounding out letter blends (fl,cr,bl,sh,etc). We played games with letter tiles to spell words out, then switched out the beginning consonants or word endings to form other words (cream, scream, beam, lotion, motion, comotion, etc). By mastering often used word endings and letter combinations, it became easier to sound out difficult words.

I didn't let my son struggle over difficult words in the beginning (especially if we were reading together before bed), I would tell him the word as we read along together, which minimized any frustration.

Pick out interesting stories (even if slightly advanced) and trade off reading with your child.

I bought old school readers from ebay to build confidence. We enjoyed the following:

Morgan Bay Mysteries
http://cgi.ebay.com/Lot-MORGAN-BAY-MYSTERIES~1965~HB_W0QQitemZ370301429485QQcmdZViewItemQQimsxZ20091205?IMSfp=TL091205019001r15574

Jim Forest & Ranger Don Series
http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/282429.John_Rambeau

I noticed by the beginning of 1st grade that not understanding how to combine vowel sounds caused my son to encounter difficulty. I purchased workbooks to provide practice with vowel combinations. The extra practice with vowels provided what "N" needed to get over the kindergarten first grade hump of sounding out new words.

The (award winning) public school we attended provided precious little in the way of worksheets based on phonics.

Parents can't depend on the public or private schools to get the job done. My experience is that they don't. We are now home schooling.

Anonymous said...

One of my resolutions is to have my ten-year-old begin studying Latin and Greek word roots after school. I'm disappointed that Latin is not offered in our school district. I had two years of Latin in high school and I feel that it helped my English vocabulary study tremendously.

I've seen a few classical word root book series, but I was hoping that I could get some feedback from other parents who have actually used them.

The series I've looked at include Vocabulary from Classical Roots from EPS books, Vocabulary from Latin and Greek Roots by Elizabeth Osborne and English from the Roots Up by J.K. Lundquist.

Has anyone here used any of these? If so, what is your opinion of them?

Allison said...

Genevieve,

I would suggest going to Liz's phonics page. (Liz, you around?)

thephonicspage.org

is a wealth of information on how to teach phonics, reading, etc. She has diagnostic tests that can help you to determine how well your child is reading, and help you see where fluency isn't happening.
Her games, her lessons, everything on that page is terrific.

She explains how terrible sight words can be for even very bright children--they memorize the words easily, but if they don't crack the phonics code, so to speak, their reading comprehension is hurt badly because sooner or later, they will hit a wall where they see words that they haven't seen before, and they have no picture or context clues to be able to sound out the words, or learn the meaning from the roots, etc.

Good luck! Don't trust the school, no matter what, because Steve's right, their expectations are sooooo low.

Get yourself a copy of the Well Trained Mind. Even if you keep homeschooling through afterschooling, it is a wealth of resources for how to teach your child what they need to learn, and what they can learn--sky's the limit there, and your child won't be held back.

Anonymous said...

Ditto what Allison and Joanne said. Don't leave it up to the school or you'll be playing a frustrating game of catch up with your child for years. Get out in front of it. Grade schoolers are easier because they always have a few minutes here or a few minutes there. As homework becomes a factor it becomes more difficult (but not impossible.)

And lord, don't forget the grammar. What a big surprise my son had when he got into his honors English classroom and found out that the years I afterschooled him were going to actually get him through. Many of his colleagues have been tanking or even moved out of the the class because of the grammar deficits.

My two greatest ports in the storm were the two books by Genevieve Schaefer--Steps to Good Grammar, and the one I'm using with him now for high school--Understanding and Using Good Grammar. I've used other ones, but those two are solid and clearly cover everything.

The Well Trained Mind crew also have a website with message boards and reviews of curriculums for homeschoolers. I think they've included an afterschooling section.

Anon,

I used Classical Roots for a bit, but I ended up just teaching Latin 1 to my sons many years ago. If I had it to do over again, I would have stuck with it more than I did.

Megawords is another good series for spelling rules. It starts in 4th grade. I did a few of the books, but I wish I had been like Catherine and really committed to it.

SusanS

Katharine Beals said...

As a linguist for whom "grammar" refers to what all native speakers learn without deliberate instruction (excepting those with specific language impairments), I've often wondered what other people mean by "grammar"--particularly people who advocate teaching it explicitly to native speakers.

Do people mean spelling and punctuation, and how these two things interact with morphology and syntax (e.g., it's vs. its; semicolons vs. commas); do people mean finer points of vocabulary and semantics (e.g. "may" vs "can"; "uninterested" vs. "disinterested"); do people mean "style" (e.g. parallel structures, dangling participles, or "that" vs. "which").

I don't mean in any way to trivialize these other things, but as a linguist I think of them as something other than grammar, and as generally more related to written language than to spoken language (we tolerate--or even overlook-- all sorts of dangling participles in spoken language).

And as someone who has lost sight of what non-linguists mean by "grammar" (not that the linguist's definition of grammar is superior to everyone else's!), I'd like to get a better handle on what those who advocate teaching it mean by it.

Cassandra said...

Genevieve,
I have just started my kids on Singapore Math, thanks to the recommendations here. As for reading, I taught my dd myself when I realized the school wasn't doing the job. Here are a couple of synthetic phonics programs to look into:
Abecedarian www.abcdrp.com
Phonics International www.phonicsinternational.com

Also, the donpotter.net webpage has lots of articles and links to programs (some of them free).
I have seen many kids advance nicely with reading over the summer, then start resorting to guessing again (at the classroom teacher's suggestion) come September. (For kids at reading levels below your child's, their eyes start wandering around the page looking for picture clues, etc.) But, emphatic counter-teaching on your part should fix the guessing. Good luck.

ChemProf said...

Katharine - I think most of us would describe "grammar" as the formal structure of English, so yes it is more of an issue for written English than for spoken language. This would include the parts of speech, tenses, parallel construction, etc.

Interestingly, from a left/right brain perspective, one of the ways that grammar used to be taught was via diagramming sentences. This was a very analytical approach, and was often the part of English class that boys and other left-brained folks enjoyed. So of course, it had to go to make more time to write about feelings!

Katharine Beals said...

Thanks, ChemProf. This (of course!) inspires me with a few questions/comments:

"I think most of us would describe "grammar" as the formal structure of English, so yes it is more of an issue for written English than for spoken language."

Actually, linguistics has shown that language--whether oral or written--is replete with formal structure (what we call "grammar").

"This would include the parts of speech, tenses, parallel construction, etc."

Tense is something that shouldn't have to be taught explicitly to neurotypical native speakers; nor am I clear on how teaching tense advances the finer (written or stylistic) linguistic skills of native speakers. I see it mainly as useful in the context of learning a second language, where it's helpful to compare the second language grammar to that of English.

Parts of speech, I think, are useful not in and of themselves, but as a pedagogical building block for teaching sentence diagramming (though we linguists prefer our tree diagrams to the grammarian's diagrams!); sentence diagramming, in turn, is useful (I think) mainly as a tool for helping students recognize parallel and non-parallel structures, dangling modifiers, and stranded prepositions.

Unless--yes!-- you're a left-brainer like me, and find sentence diagramming intrinsically fun (so much more than "journaling"!). But then I'd argue that our linguistic tree diagrams, so much deeper, more abstract, and linguistically principled, are even more fun. Not to mention transformations on those trees (the ones that derive passive sentences and questions, for example).

Anonymous said...

This would include the parts of speech, tenses, parallel construction, etc.

Right, with punctuation thrown in for good measure. The grade schools are obsessed with inferring and making connections. Grammar comes at them in the form of a packet or two a year, and even then, it's not enforced in their writing.

Same with spelling. They may send home spelling lists, but they don't reinforce a lot of misspellings, particularly when they're in journals. There was a point when I realized that they were literally doing damage to my kid. He was searing in common word misspellings into his brain while I was desperately trying to fix what was going on at home.

I guess they don't want kids to feel bad about writing by marking up their papers too much, but boy, they're going to feel really bad when they get to high school.

Just making sure your kid knows the 8 parts of speech by the time middle school starts puts them in a better position than the majority of kids.

What was interesting to me about the high school English class was that the teacher was teaching the concepts pretty clearly (they were covering gerunds, infinitives, independent/dependent clauses, linking verbs, etc.), but for my son it was more of a review. He could keep up. For the kids that were really struggling, it was like learning if for the first time. They had never mastered the basics.

SusanS

ChemProf said...

"for my son it was more of a review."

I think that's an important point, for those of us who decry the loss of explicit grammar instruction. If grammar is taught early, then it seems obvious (as Katharine says), just building on the way English is spoken and giving students words to describe what they already know (past tense, names for punctuation and parts of speech).

The problem is that if it isn't taught early, grammar becomes mystical and so does formal English. My students, when writing formally, produce this bizarre quasi-legalistic stuff, with complicated words used improperly and complicated sentence structure misused to give run-on sentences or sentence fragments. I wind up teaching them to simplify their sentence structure as much as possible, to break them out of their weird habits.

What we want isn't complicated, but is lost to low expectations, especially in K-6. Heck, just showing an episode of schoolhouse rock every day in third grade would be an improvement!

Anonymous said...

"Tense is something that shouldn't have to be taught explicitly to neurotypical native speakers; nor am I clear on how teaching tense advances the finer (written or stylistic) linguistic skills of native speakers."

Have you never seen a paragraph (or series of paragraphs) wandering back and forth between present and past tense? How do you explain to the author that this is "a bad idea (tm)" without the concept of tense? Subject/object helps explaining "me" versus "I". And so on ... (think well vs good adverb/adjective ...)

I suppose one can try to handle this without grammar, but ... how? ... and why would you want to do so?

-Mark Roulo

Katharine Beals said...

"Have you never seen a paragraph (or series of paragraphs) wandering back and forth between present and past tense?"

Yes. People talk that way, too. (It turns out that there are-*sometimes*-good stylistic reasons for mixing tenses in story-telling situations; if you're interested, I'll try to track down a paper or two on this). But, yes, people are often gratuitously inconsistent in their tense use, and should be taught to look out for this and correct it.

"How do you explain to the author that this is "a bad idea (tm)" without the concept of tense? "

Neurotypical speakers already *have* the concept of tense (in a way that they don't have the concept of long division). That is, people use the correct tense in sentences that start with "Yesterday I ___", "Tomorrow I ___", "Right now I ___".

What they may not pick up without explicit teaching is the meaning of the word "tense". And, yes, it's of course useful to teach students what the word "tense" means before pointing out to them that they have been inconsistent in their use of tense.

"Subject/object helps explaining "me" versus "I". And so on ... (think well vs good adverb/adjective ...)"

Most "me" vs. "I" confusions are actually consistent with linguistic rules, thought not with stylistic ones. There are, for example, linguistic reasons behind the use of "It's me" and "John and me played poker"; as opposed to "Me went to school today," which neurotypical native English speakers don't need to be taught not to say.

"good" vs. "well" touches on style as well: "I'm well" had assumed an increasingly formal/elite register; many people who know the official rule for "good" vs. "well" will nonetheless say "I'm good" instead to avoid sounding stuffy. I'm guilty of that myself.

It seems to me that much of what non-linguists call grammar rules linguists would call rules of style (or of spelling and punctuation). As for the rules that linguists do consider rules of grammar, it seems to me that most of these are most effectively taught in the context of learning a foreign language (i.e., of learning the mismatches between English grammar and that of a foreign language), and not of learning to write good English.

Anonymous said...

"It seems to me that much of what non-linguists call grammar rules linguists would call rules of style (or of spelling and punctuation)."

Quite possibly.

Much like mathematicians sometimes argue that arithmetic is *not* math, even though most non-mathematicians don't think of it this way.

Since most of the poster's here are non-linguists, I suspect you can simply replace "grammar" with "rules of style" to understand what a given post is trying to say.

A practical aspect might be that most of the poster's here want children who can produce a 3-5 page essay that would not be marked with an "F" for grammar by a hypothetical "Father McFadden" ... even if the "F" *really* should be for style instead of grammar.

Does this help explain your earlier "I've often wondered what other people mean by 'grammar'" comment?

If not, I'll try again :-)

-Mark Roulo

ChemProf said...

"I suspect you can simply replace "grammar" with "rules of style" to understand what a given post is trying to say."

Yeah, I'd agree with that. I also think Mark gets at the problem nicely -- when students don't know how to describe the parts of speech, or punctuation, or tense, or whatever, it is hard to explain to them why their writing is poor. It is all very well to say "this isn't parallel", but if they don't really know their verb conjugations, they may not see why.

Also, sometimes loosening grammar rules, as promoted by lots of English folks (and some linguists like my sister who loves to talk about how written use should change to accommodate spoken English) can lead to awful writing. My students have been taught it is fine to start a sentence with "and" or "but." Which is fine occasionally, but in their hands, it leads to summaries where EVERY sentence starts with "and," "then," or "next." Drives me crazy!

Katharine Beals said...

"Much like mathematicians sometimes argue that arithmetic is *not* math, even though most non-mathematicians don't think of it this way."

The mathematicians I know wouldn't say this; what they would say is that arithmetic isn't *interesting* math--but that it does build a crucial foundation for interesting math.

The grammarian's grammar, on the other hand, really is a different sort of beast from the linguist's grammar (one is learned implicitly, the other explicitly), and sometimes educators confuse two things are confused in ways that aren't productive.

My father (a mathematician), for example, reports not only being taught what "conjugation" means (which, as I argued above with "tense", is a reasonable thing to teach explicitly), but also how to conjugate English verbs. In other words, he was explicitly taught (along with a classroom full of neurotypical native English speakers) declensions like:

I walk
You walk
He/She walks
We walk
You walk
They walk

Needless to say, he found this totally pointless--until many years later, when he started learning French, where the conjugation patterns are not only different, but much more interesting.

So while I agree that it's good to learn what conjugation *is*, I suspect that it's not only unnecessary, but also counterproductive, to spend time showing neurotypical native English speakers how to conjugate English verbs: it only makes "grammar" seem tedious and irrelevant, turning students off to what is relevant.

I've looked around a bit, and it seems to me that at least some present day grammar curricula make the same mistake, wasting time telling native English speakers what they already know about English, as opposed to teaching them explicitly what the underlying concepts are (the ones that relate to rules of style).

Of course, when it comes to foreign language grammar, it becomes more relevant to point out the contrasting English rules--indeed, when non-linguists talk about foreign language grammar, then they *are* talking about the same "grammar" that linguists talk about.

palisadesk said...

@ Crimson Wife
I thought Katherine Beals would answer your question about Grammar Trainer, but if she did I missed it, so I'll put in my 2 cents.

I used Grammar Trainer I with two students in sixth grade last year. One was a student with autism (verbal, but limited in language complexity, and with typical difficulties in understanding pronouns, singular/plural etc.) The other was a student who did not have autism but did have some sort of language disability, although she did not meet criteria for SPED -- her nonverbal IQ was in the low average range, but in verbal reasoning she was only at the .5%ile or something -- very limited.

So, both these children found Grammar Training challenging but in their ZPD as it were. Both had reading skills at an early second grade level, though the student with autism could decode much better than that. However, their comprehension was impaired by just the sorts of things that Grammar Trainer focused on: positional language, verb, pronoun and preposition usage, etc.

I found I needed to be nearby offering a lot of ongoing positive reinforcement -- there is a built-in reinforcer system that you can customize and that probably works better for a parent than it does in the classroom because the parent generally has control over more reinforcers for the child than a teacher does. One student was only interested in logging onto Facebook and that was not a reinforcer I was allowed to offer! The other was motivated by the opportunity to use a program for K kids entitled "Plumo at the Zoo" which, while not a learning activity for a sixth grader, was at least harmless, so I could set the parameters so that he got 10 minutes of Plumo after so many points on Grammar Trainer. It is meant to be more or less self-correcting (the program gives the student hints when a mistake is made) but I had to elaborate on these at times because both my students were ESL. You may need to monitor your student using the program; it's not a chore, because it is rather engrossing to see how it works. It does not require a student to type (although s/he may do so if desired); rather, like Rosetta Stone, it provides clickable word boxes that the student can use to compose the sentences required.

It's a good program and I recommend it.

Anonymous said...

it seems to me that at least some present day grammar curricula make the same mistake, wasting time telling native English speakers what they already know about English, as opposed to teaching them explicitly what the underlying concepts are (the ones that relate to rules of style).

I'm currently reading Huddleston and Pullum's A Student's Introduction to English Grammar to try to think about the clearest, simplest way to convey categories of grammar to students solely for the purpose of helping them close the gap between spoken speech (which, as you explain, is intuitive) and written speech (which seems to me not to be as intuitive).

It seems to me that students, especially younger kids, can have trouble putting together a simple sentence when they have to create it out of context, for the purpose of writing, even though they have a normal, intuitive sense of grammar.

And it does seem like using the basic categories to remember roughly what a sentence looks like might be useful for this purpose--in a more basic way than teaching formal stylistics.

When I worked with one 7 yr old student this fall, who was absolutely stuck (mostly because of the awful writer's workshop "curriculum"), prompting him to think of a noun and a verb first seemed to help loosen up his thinking.

So, I'm very interested in how a bare bones approach to teaching grammar might be used to help students who have difficulty with writer's workshop (since that's the reality we have to deal with).

le radical galoisien said...

chemprof: that's not really a loosening of grammar rules. that's just bad style. (bad rhetoric)

actually we need to bring the rhetoric term back. like rhetoric is what was classically taught, and grammar was more of analysis (or the grammar of foreign languages like Latin).

horrible essays use horrible rhetoric and horrible style, not horrible grammar (generally), though sometimes they aren't proofread, and the issue of editing a thought midway is what causes most grammar errors for native speakers.

native speakers of English are generally not very faulty in their use of English grammar (by definition of a native speaker).

the distinction is kind of important for linguists. conflating grammar with style would be like conflating velocity and force for physicists.

Tracy W said...

For me on grammar, I find myself often reviewing at work papers written by people who are not native English speakers. Sometimes when they get something wrong I can explain it in terms of grammar, and this seems better than those times when I just know it's wrong but don't know how it's wrong.

I have also come across native English speakers who didn't write grammatically (both NZ natives like myself), although in both those cases they weren't interested in improving, unlike the non-native speakers I've worked with, so my ignorance about grammar terms was a very secondary problem.

I went through school at the time when grammar wasn't taught in any formal sense. Actually, I did have a primary school teacher who tried to teach grammar, but I didn't really understand what grammar was until years later when I learned Latin and realised that different languages weren't just a matter of different vocab, the words could also be arranged in a different way. Much of what the primary school teacher taught me just went over my head, so much of what I do know about grammar is from the Latin classes, and my first boss at a professional job.

Katharine Beals said...

One reason why Americans, and perhaps people from certain other English-speaking countries as well, are so under-appreciative of what Grammar is (in the linguist's sense) is that so few of us spend much time learning foreign languages--and that our foreign language classes increasingly de-emphasize grammar (in the Constructivist foreign language classes, grammar is to foreign language what the standard algorithms are to arithmetic).

As someone who creates grammar software for autistic children (thanks, PalisadesK for describing GrammarTrainer so thoroughly; I'm happy to say more about it if anyone wants to know more), our society's failure to appreciate Grammar in its own right (as distinct from style and written language conventions) is most apparent to me in the world of language therapy.

In the autism world in particular we have two main schools of thought that purport to offer English language curricula--ABA (Lovaas/Discrete Trials) and Floor Time (D.I.R)--that either ignore grammar completely (Stanley Greenspan's "Affect-Based Language Curriculum"), or cover only a sprinkling of is most superficial aspects ("Teach Me Language") based on outdated theories of language by B. F. Skinner. You see this as well in the language assessments and language interventions used by most of our speech therapists.

And you see this, as well, in foreign language programs like Rosetta Stone, whose exercises have answers that can be identified via key words rather than requiring syntactic awareness, and thus mainly teach vocabulary rather than grammar.

There's a very specific way in which the lack of appreciation for grammar (and its importance) affects me personally, and that is when I apply for grants for GrammarTrainer efficacy studies, or attempt to publish GrammarTrainer efficacy results. Grant committees and speech journals are often staffed by people who are invested in modes of thinking about speech therapy that severely marginalize grammar.

And as we all know at ktm, it's extremely difficult to get people who are emotionally invested in one theory of education to consider alternative theories.

ChemProf said...

Actually, our foreign language faculty has been arguing for a foreign language requirement on the basis that it will teach students about the structure of English (but as you say, they are increasingly constructivist, so this hasn't been a winning argument).

As for the issues with granting agencies, I don't think grammar (by either definition) is just marginalized with these folks. I think they are actively opposed to teaching grammar, in the non-linguist sense, and so view anything that refers to grammar (or, I suspect, training) with antipathy.

Katharine Beals said...

Actually the ABA (Behaviorist) folks are big advocates of explicit step-by-step teaching (the pedagogy quite akin to Direct Instruction). And ABA is one of the most popular interventions for autism. The problem is that these people are laboring under an outdated take on language that dates back to B.F. Skinner, ignoring subsequent work by Noam Chomsky and his many acolytes on the deep complexity of Grammar and on the centrality of Grammar to language.

And it has been those in the ABA camp that have expressed--in the article and grant reviews I've received--the most skepticism about the potential of GrammarTrainer to remediate language delays in autism.

Not that the Greenspan/Floortime camp is any more receptive--they'd be more likely to reject my approach for the reasons ChemProf cites--but these people don't seem to serve in as many gate-keeping capacities as the ABA folks do.

PhysicistDave said...

Katharine wrote:
>One reason why Americans, and perhaps people from certain other English-speaking countries as well, are so under-appreciative of what Grammar is (in the linguist's sense) is that so few of us spend much time learning foreign languages--and that our foreign language classes increasingly de-emphasize grammar...

Yeah. I've just started sentence diagramming with our kids, largely because I realized that their studying of Chinese was being held back by not explicitly knowing some basic concepts of English grammar (fairly simple things --prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, direct object, etc.)

Curiously, they test way beyond grade level on "language arts" on standardized tests, and their compostion skills are okay.

I suppose this is because, coming from an upper-middle class background, they do "know" English grammar implicitly: my wife and I have been fairly careful to be "correct" on issues such as subjunctive mood, pronoun case, etc. in speaking with them.

But, yeah, in explaining to them how Chinese works, their not being up on Enlgish grammar has started to be a problem.

Also, even though all of us do manage to use English grammar intuitively, there is something to be said for having an explicit understanding of how it works.

By the way, the kids are finding grammar rather difficult, even though they already "know" it in a functional sense.

Dave Miller in Sacramento

le radical galoisien said...

"knowing some basic concepts of English grammar (fairly simple things --prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, direct object, etc.)"

Well a lot of those are general grammar concepts (except maybe the distinction of indirect versus direct object, which isn't always distinct in other languages).

I think there's also the distinction of having bad grammar versus having bad grammatical analysis skills.

The latter is what the SAT tests. A lot of people tend to have good grammar, except in writing (because writing is a bit more conscious and laborious).

Katharine Beals said...

"I suppose this is because, coming from an upper-middle class background, they do "know" English grammar implicitly: my wife and I have been fairly careful to be "correct" on issues such as subjunctive mood, pronoun case, etc. in speaking with them."

Modern linguistics has shown that background is irrelevant to grammar mastery: all neurotypical native speakers master their native grammars by middle childhood--and on more or less the same developmental timetable-- regardless of parental background.

But most non-linguists find this difficult to believe, for several reasons:

1. There are different dialects of English, and what is grammatical in some dialects is ungrammatical in others (see, for example, Labov's work on Black English Vernacular). Thus, native speakers of non-standard English may need special instruction before they master standard English grammar.

2. Even within standard English, there are different levels of formality. Today's informal English doesn't include the subjunctive mode ("If I were a rich man") and sometimes violates the grammarian's rules about pronoun case ("It is I"; "My friend and I played Scrabble"). Thus, even standard English speakers may need explicit instruction in formal standard English.

3. Other elements of language--particularly vocabulary and written language conventions--do require explicit teaching/learning, and some of these (as noted above) are confused with the linguistic sense of grammar.

4. Using grammar correctly doesn't imply knowing it explicitly. In this regard, using grammar is like walking or recognizing geometric shapes; we do it without thinking, without knowing explicitly the muscle movements, or the perceptual processes, or the mathematical and physical properties.

On another note, to really appreciate English grammar you not only should spend several years studying the grammar of another language, but you should pick a language whose syntax differs dramatically from English. Case-based languages like German, Latin, and the Slavic languages are good bets; so are agglutinative languages like Eskimo-Inuit (in which individual words contain so many morphemes that they can function as whole sentences do in English); also illuminating are "isolating" languages Chinese (where words consist of single morphemes), which Physicist Dave's children are lucky to be learning.

Beth said...

Katherine -- a couple of things I've noticed about contemporary English.

1.) People seem to have gotten it into their heads that "I" is always preferable to "me". I'm constantly hearing "between her and I". A guy on TV said, "this is a problem in Tatiana and I's relationship." Ouch!

2.) "Gift" has become a verb, for no apparent reason. "I gifted her with a book" is now standard. What happened to "I gave her a book"?

I agree that all our kids should be studying a foreign language, but I prefer one that our kids will have a chance to use. That pretty much rules out the Inuit languages, unless they take a sudden interest in it.

Anonymous said...

Beth,

One advantage of "gift" over "give" is that give is ambiguous about whether you expect to get the thing back (context often helps ... but not always). Gift is not.

If people were more precise about loan vs give, this problem would not arise, but when the population is sloppy, using gift makes things clear.

-Mark Roulo

Beth said...

Mark, I think you're right. Using "gift" as a verb also makes it clear that you're giving a present, in contrast to usages like "I gave her the flu." It still bugs me though.

le radical galoisien said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
le radical galoisien said...

EDIT: correcting irony...

On average, lower-class people speak more grammatically than people of higher classes -- for the reason that there is more incentive for them to speak naturally.

There's a lot of interesting mathematical things to be said about grammar. Creoles and much of Black English are perfectly compliant with Universal Grammar, while pidgins, broken English, etc. are not. People who speak ungrammatically (generally people who acquire a language after puberty) tend to have higher levels of something called "information entropy".

PhysicistDave said...

Katharine wrote to me:

>Modern linguistics has shown that background is irrelevant to grammar mastery: all neurotypical native speakers master their native grammars by middle childhood--and on more or less the same developmental timetable-- the regardless of parental background.

Yeah, I know -- that is why I put "correct" in quotes in the comment you referenced.

However, on a practical level, we do indeed have different 'registers" in English -- not just colloquial speech versus writing but also different registers even among middle-class Euro-Americans.

And, again as a practical matter, if someone has not mastered the register for upper-middle-class/professional English, she can be at a disadvantage in our society.

For example, the lower-middle-class environment I grew up in seemed ignorant of the subjunctive mood ("If I were a rich man" -- I remember as a kid wondering why Tevye said "were"!)-- I only learned this in my late teens from books and did not pick it up from everyday speech.

Sure, in some logical sense, we do not really need that distinction, and, in the environment I grew up in, I was fine not knowing it.

However, in the professional world I moved into, it would not be good to be ignorant of this.

The African-American linguist John McWhorter has made a similar point about "Black English" -- nothing intrinsically wrong with Black English, but, in American society, a black American is likely to do better for herself if she can also handle standard English.

As a practical pedagogical matter, McWhorter’s point boils down to saying that kids need to be taught standard English for their own good, even though, in an abstract linguistic sense, any dialect may be as good as any other (a point McWhorter and I both accept).

Of course, that is no excuse for saying "It is I!" (unless one is trying to be intentionally arch)instead of "It's me!": in all spoken dialects of English that I am acquainted with, "It is I!" is simply wrong.

Dave

Anonymous said...

I'd have to agree with Physicist Dave. My mother's family in the rural south was more well-to-do than my father's, yet there was almost a deliberate effort not to sound too uppity. (My father's people were German 18th century poor mountain people who almost all ended up in education or the clergy by the 20th century.)

There seems to be a deliberate disregard of some forms of standard English almost as part of the vernacular. It was like code that you were from around those parts. Educated families knew how to drop it when they needed to, though.

My mother would speak that code somewhat (like Dave described), although my father spoke properly most of the time. I still drive my husband crazy with the way I ignore correct subjective/objective pronouns since the wrong way doesn't seem all that wrong at times. However, when I write I usually don't make those mistakes. They "feel" wrong on paper probably because I had them drummed out of me early on.

SusanS

le radical galoisien said...

The onus is on the society to be more tolerant, not for the speaker to bend over backwards to avoid prejudice.

Southern English is historically interesting esp. since it is a historically conservative dialect and preserves many constructions lost in other Modern English dialects (same applies for Scots -- not too surprising because many Southerners come from Scotland and Ireland).

"For example, the lower-middle-class environment I grew up in seemed ignorant of the subjunctive mood ("If I were a rich man" "

Not really, I think we just conjugate it differently. No one really THINKS he's using the past tense when he uses subjunctive "was". It's implicitly subjunctive.

If I was a rich girl -- does Gwen Stefani really think she *used* to be a rich girl, or is she using a special construction to make a hypothesis? (ignore her celebrity status)

Catherine Johnson said...

I wish I was in Aruba.

Catherine Johnson said...

Just saying.

Catherine Johnson said...

Or do I mean I wish I were in Aruba?

Catherine Johnson said...

One of my resolutions is to have my ten-year-old begin studying Latin and Greek word roots after school.

Good for you!

That's one of my missed opportunities with C. I started but didn't follow through. Fortunately, he took a year of Latin in high school last year.

This year he's taking Honors French & loves it.

PhysicistDave said...

LRG wrote to me:

>[Dave}"For example, the lower-middle-class environment I grew up in seemed ignorant of the subjunctive mood ("If I were a rich man" "

>[LRG}Not really, I think we just conjugate it differently. No one really THINKS he's using the past tense when he uses subjunctive "was". It's implicitly subjunctive.

Sure. I'm not claiming that those of us who were ignorant of the standard English convention for the subjunctive mood did not know what we were saying or that we were unable to communicate.

We were simply ignorant of the details of an (apparently pointless) convention of standard English.

However, fair or not, that ignorance can in fact cause you problems in certain situations. I don’t want my kids to have problems in those sorts of situations, so I try to see to it that they know the conventions of standard English.

Of course, one can take that to ridiculous extremes, as shown in the famous Chruchillian anecdote that ends with "That is the sort of criticism up with which I will not put."

As Katharine says, all this is not really a significant part of linguistics.

However, just as I know that my kids are likely to have an easier time in life if they know that, in the USA, it is normally acceptable to use one's hands in eating a burger but not in eating filet mignon, so also I try to teach them similar conventions relating to language.

Incidentally, as a physicist, I tend to be rather impatient with all of these sorts of arbitrary conventions – I have trouble taking anything seriously unless it is grounded in objective, culture-free reality. I have always been bemused by the phobia our culture has about nudity, for example: nonetheless, I do go around fully clothed, since this is what our culture expects.

Sometimes, life is just easier if one conforms to pointless but innocuous conventions.

Now, if the social conventions are not innocuous (for example, if they involve socially-mandated lies), then, in those situations, I am more than happy to be a non-conformist (indeed, some people might say I take a certain glee in it).

Dave

PhysicistDave said...

Katharine wrote:
>also illuminating are "isolating" languages Chinese (where words consist of single morphemes)…

Actually, in Mandarin, most words are polysyllabic (mainly disyllabic), with each syllable in principle being one morpheme – many of these morphemes are now bound forms that can no longer function as single words (in many cases, they did function as free morphemes thousands of years ago).

What happened historically is that sound changes eliminated all final syllabic consonants except for “n” and “ng” (and, occasionally, “r” and, in one instance “m”). This created a huge number of homonyms. To distinguish among these homonyms, they commonly added a second morpheme (and second syllable) to the word. Some of the other related Chinese languages (so-called “dialects”) did not lose so many final consonants and so did not undergo the same evolution.

What is really challenging about Mandarin grammatically is the verbal system: because it is an isolating language that does not have tenses and declensions as so many languages do, Mandarin makes do with a variety of markers for verbal aspect. How these function is really confusing for native English speakers (at least for me).

Incidentally, I am better at talking about Mandarin that at actually speaking Mandarin. I’m interested in the structure of languages but, alas, actually attaining fluency is very hard work: our kids are way ahead of me in vocabulary in Mandarin – though my greater grasp of English grammar means that they still need me to explain how Mandarin grammar differs from English.

And, yeah, I have always wanted to learn one of those hyper-agglutinative languages just to see how it works, but, alas, it is kind of hard to justify putting much time into learning Inuit!

Dave

Barry Garelick said...

Catherine's question about whether it's "I wish I were" or "I wish I was" brings up the problem of subjunctive voice. It's fallen out of use in English except in cases like that, but present practice is to find both forms acceptable. The only other vestige is when "that" is used as in: "It is important that he be still". That last example might be taken as Ebonics by some, and that's a whole 'nother subject that I don't wish to get into.

palisadesk said...

@Physicist Dave: re "the standard English convention for the subjunctive mood " -- perhaps you (or another reader) can comment on whether this convention, standard in the U.S., is obsolete in the UK?

I first noticed the absence of "our" use of the subjunctive verb variant in constructions like 'if I were,' 'he wished he were' and so forth when I vocariously consumed the writings of C.S. Lewis as a teen. He invariably used "if I was" and "he wished he was" and so forth, and it sounded *wrong* to me, so my antennae went up and I paid attention to it in the writings of other English authors -- with similar findings.

Is the subjunctive expressed differently in formal UK English?

Also, point of possible interest, Inuit are the people, Inuktituk is the language, and a very interesting language,too.

Katharine Beals said...

'He invariably used "if I was" and "he wished he was" and so forth'

I've noticed this about Lewis Carroll as well--very recently, in fact, as I am currently reading the Alice books with my daughter.

I'm reading from a 1940 edition, and the other thing I've noticed here is that apostrophes don't just represent missing letters in the ending, but also missing letters in the root, yielding punctuations such as:

ca'n't
wo'n't

Not sure if this still occurs in contemporary written British English.

PhysicistDave said...

Barry wrote:
>The only other vestige is when "that" is used as in: "It is important that he be still". That last example might be taken as Ebonics by some, and that's a whole 'nother subject that I don't wish to get into.

Katharine can get the details right on this better than I, but it has to do with imperative mood vs. declarative mood. All standard English speakers say “Be still!” as an imperative. “It’s important that he be still” hints at an imperative; “It’s important that he is still” just notes the importance of the fact that he is indeed still.

Incidentally, as Katharine alluded to above, Black English does not just simply and unsystematically substitute “be” where Standard English has “is,” “am,” etc. Rather, the use of “be” is connected with the verbal system of Black English in a systematic way (as I recall, in Black English, “I am sick” means “I am sick right now at this instant”; “I be sick” refers to an ongoing situation).

Not “bad” language, just a slightly different language than Standard English. But, since most Americans speak Standard English (more or less!), black kids need to learn the standard language.

Dave

PhysicistDave said...

palisadesk,

I don’t recall Lewis’ failing to use the subjunctive in the “correct” way: perhaps I read Lewis before I knew the “correct” way myself and so didn’t notice it.

There are also some subtleties here: the subjunctive is meant to be used in contrary-to-fact situations. For example, “If he was in Washington, then he knew all about it” can be quite correct, if it is true that he was indeed in Washington. You should only say “If he *were*. in Washington…” when you are implying that he was not in Washington.

I still get a bit hazy on this sometimes – there are obviously borderline cases where it can go either way. And since I learned this from explicit instruction, not from my initial childhood language learning, I am always a bit uncertain whether I have the whole concept down right.

Because of my own experience and curiosity on this particular issue, I am fairly attuned to it. I can say that I do not see too many cases in “serious” writing (mainstream magazines, etc.) in which the subjunctive is done “incorrectly.”

In colloquial speech, I imagine it is done “incorrectly” all the time and not noticed, but then colloquial speech is a different dialect from formal writing: “me and Julio,” as Paul Simon noticed, is perfectly acceptable colloquial English in the USA, but it is not accepted in formal writing.

And, “gonna,” “musta,” “oughta,” “gotta,” “hafta,” are used by good speakers even in careful speech (“gonna” is used routinely by newscasters, for example): these are part of an evolving system of modal auxiliaries in spoken English. But they are not accepted in even semi-formal written speech: for example, “gonna” is comparatively rare in Web postings, except when the writer is striving for effect (I know that one gets oodles of Google hits for “gonna,” but you get a lot more for “going to,” which is the semi-acceptable surrogate).

Incidentally, I only recently learned the “correct” distinction between “that” and “which” – restrictive vs. non-restrictive. As a result, all of my writing prior to a year or so ago (the Web, editorials for the college paper, term papers, my Ph.D. thesis – everything!) is “incorrect” in about half of my usages of these words. Since no one ever corrected me on this – not teachers, editors, etc. – I assume that this is a distinction that is dying. (Or perhaps the whole rest of the world has been secretly laughing at me for decades – “correct” grammar can induce paranoia!)

Dave

le radical galoisien said...

Black English is actually basically undergoing decreolisation.

I really dislike it when lawmakers try to legislate language policy without knowing what they're doing.

Beautiful example of where it has basically ripped grandparents away from grandchildren and destroyed generations of cultural heritage: Singapore.

Oh yeah, and Maine -- all the French-American kids (whose grandparents came down from Quebec) are so Americanised, that they can't pronounce their French last names correctly.

Such a pitiful story.

le radical galoisien said...

"But, since most Americans speak Standard English (more or less!), black kids need to learn the standard language."

But why?

Black English is understandable to me. It's also one of the most intonically expressive dialects I have ever heard.

PhysicistDave said...

lrg wrote to me:
>[Dave] "But, since most Americans speak Standard English (more or less!), black kids need to learn the standard language."
>[lrg] But why?

Well… for one thing, most Americans do not know Black English and have little desire to learn it.

If I intended to live in France for a long time, I’d try to learn French. If someone wishes to do well in the USA, he would be well-advised to learn Standard American English (with the caveat that there are actually several different “registers” in Standard American English – casual colloquial speech, the formal written language, etc.).

lrg also wrote:
>Black English is understandable to me. It's also one of the most intonically expressive dialects I have ever heard.

I wonder how “authentic” the Black English you have heard is. Ever lived in a black ghetto in an old US city?

I once got lost, right before I started grad school at Stanford, in the black ghetto right next to Palo Alto. When I asked for directions, I could not, for the life of me, understand what anyone was saying. I’m not sure if they were just playing with the white kid or if their version of Black English really was beyond my comprehension.

Anyway, Black English is far enough away from Standard American English to be a problem in many situations.

A slight black accent can be a different story: I once had a black supervisor whose speech patterns were more interesting (and probably more understandable) than my own. But he spoke standard English, just with a more interesting accent than my own (I have a Midwestern “twang,” due to my upbringing).

Dave

le radical galoisien said...

I mean ghetto English ... though it varies from city to city; I mean the ghetto talk of Charlottesville, or any city of the South.

I also speak Singlish, a creole of Singapore that has been unfairly suppressed by the Singaporean government.

To be frank I do not look upon "replace your inferior dialect with the standard variant" language replacement promoters with a fair eye at all.

Aggressive language replacement policy promotes the destruction of culture and families.

Black English, no matter how ghetto it is, is fairly close to the structure of standard English to be understood. In fact, vocabulary is the biggest difference, not syntax. It just takes a little patience to understand...

Multilingualism should be promoted, not monolingualism.

le radical galoisien said...

"If I intended to live in France for a long time, I’d try to learn French."

So you support the destruction of Occitan and Catalan.... in the name of unification?

Let's also destroy then, the vast array of "inferior" Chinese dialects and encourage their replacement with "superior" Mandarin in the name of national unity.

Barry Garelick said...

Katharine can get the details right on this better than I, but it has to do with imperative mood vs. declarative mood. All standard English speakers say “Be still!” as an imperative. “It’s important that he be still” hints at an imperative; “It’s important that he is still” just notes the importance of the fact that he is indeed still.

Yet in Spanish, the word "that" as I used it in my example is a signal for use of the subjunctive mood which the Spanish language uses. I recall the sentence "I hope she gets better soon" in Spanish as "Ojala que se mejore pronto". The "que" in the sentence is "that" and is a signal for the subjunctive. Literally the sentence is translated is "I hope that she betters [or improves] herself soon". Except that betters/improves is stated in the subjunctive mo0d. "Mejore" is a conjugation form of the subjunctive.

Katharine Beals said...

"Yet in Spanish, the word "that" as I used it in my example is a signal for use of the subjunctive mood which the Spanish language uses."

The same is true in French, where, mutatis mutandis, all of Barry's characterizations apply.

The subjective also applies in "it's important that he be still" in English, where the bare infinitive is used. While the English subjunctive resembles the English imperative in this regard, the two are different in other ways.

For example:

The imperative can omit the subject; the complement of a that clause cannot. (*It's important that be still)

The (understood) subject of the imperative is always the second person; the subject of the that clause is unrestricted as far as person goes.

The imperative cannot be embedded inside another sentence (except as a direct quote), while the that- clause is embedded, and can be further embedded (she said that it's important that he be still).

The pragmatics of the two structures, of course, are also quite different. One is by definition always in the imperative mood; the other can be embedded in a sentence of any mood:

Is it important that he be still?
Tell him that it's important that he be still!
...

Katharine Beals said...

"So you support the destruction of Occitan and Catalan.... in the name of unification?"

I doubt anyone here would say yes to this.

Learning the standard dialect does not imply destruction of the others. (Cf, e.g., Arabic; Chinese).

Given the reality (rather than the ideal) of discriminatory practices and intelligibility challenges, if my own children didn't know the standard dialect, I'd do everything I could to see that they mastered it as soon as possible.

Anonymous said...

Dave, you are arbitrarily assuming that everything should be like physics when you write:

"Incidentally, as a physicist, I tend to be rather impatient with all of these sorts of arbitrary conventions – I have trouble taking anything seriously unless it is grounded in objective, culture-free reality."

That implies you have trouble taking culture seriously. Culture is reality.

le radical galoisien said...

"Learning the standard dialect does not imply destruction of the others"

But interesting then how many lawmakers then try to apply it. So many government people seem ignorant of coursework in linguistics (did they fail their psycholinguistics class? OH WAIT, politicians don't take psycholinguistics classes) and subscribe to basic fallacies like you can't have two L1s, or that your Singlish will corrupt your standard English, or that your Chinese will corrupt your English.

"You have to stop speaking Chinese to him," the foolish ESL teachers told my friend's parents regarding her brother. "He uses it inappropriately in school." Despite the fact that he was acquiring perfectly standard English at the same time.... did it ever occur to these administrators that he was ... code switching? NO!

In Singapore, the Speak Mandarin Campaign's explicit policy is "dialect replacement". It's wonderful stuff -- so many children can no longer speak to their grandparents; for a time, speaking of dialects was "banned" in schools. I have this lovely pink sticker from the 1980s -- "Speak Mandarin! Don't speak dialects!" that go along with the "Flush the toilet and wash your hands after you use it" campaigns, as though there is something morally wrong about using dialects.

Oh my experience with ESL teachers is another story too.

Very suspicious about any attempt to "make" children learn the standard dialect, because chances are 1) children know the standard dialect very well, they just simply choose not to use it 2) it's usually an attempt to suppress and wipe out competing modes of expression, i.e. impose monoculturalism.

Kids who speak Black English or any other dialects don't need to be "taught" standard English. They're exposed to it all the time at school. They could probably imitate it if they wanted to. They simply choose not to use it.

PhysicistDave said...

Anonymous wrote to me:
>Dave, you are arbitrarily assuming that everything should be like physics when you write:
>>[Dave]"Incidentally, as a physicist, I tend to be rather impatient with all of these sorts of arbitrary conventions – I have trouble taking anything seriously unless it is grounded in objective, culture-free reality."

Hmmm…. I think you did not read carefully. I said I tend to do that. If you read all my posts in this thread, you will see that I am the one arguing that we do have to take into account cultural contexts such as “Standard English,” even though I myself have a tendency in the opposite direction.

You also wrote:
>That implies you have trouble taking culture seriously. Culture is reality.

No, you really are not reading carefully. It does not imply that.

As to “Culture is reality,” well… that could mean several different things.

It could mean that human cultural beliefs are a part of reality, even when those beliefs happen to be false or absurd. I think everyone, even Catherine’s friend Temple Grandin, for example, would agree with that.

“Culture is reality” could mean that culture is all of reality. A lot of post-modernists seem to be arguing just that, with all their talk about “the world as text” and so on. If that is what you mean, you are in the best of academic company. You are also, then, in my judgment, obviously and ludicrously wrong, but I am not interested in debating the point: I believe in freedom of religion.

Finally, and most commonly, “culture is reality” could mean that the culture we live in must and should be fully internalized by us so that it becomes constitutive of our own personal reality (sorry for sounding like a pomo anthropologist here, but I’m not sure how to put that in plain English!).

I think most people do in fact believe that proposition, implicitly if not explicitly. For example, most people refer to “my religion,” meaning the religion they were raised in, not the religious beliefs (or lack thereof) that they came to by careful, scientific analysis of the evidence.

Personally, I disagree with that proposition: I think that part of being a good human being is to distance yourself from the culture in which you are immersed and to look at that culture with a critical, even jaundiced, eye. I know I am in the minority in this view, but I do have some good company historically (for example, that annoying Athenian dude who declared that the “unexamined life is not worth living” and who was executed for leading the youth of Athens away from their traditional religious culture).

Anyway, “culture is reality” can mean (at least!) three different things. If you would care to indicate which you have in mind, I can reply further.

If you just prefer the mantra “Culture is reality,” well, as I said, I believe in freedom of religion.

Dave

PhysicistDave said...

lrg wrote:
>Kids who speak Black English or any other dialects don't need to be "taught" standard English. They're exposed to it all the time at school. They could probably imitate it if they wanted to. They simply choose not to use it.

Well… it is hard to become fluent in a language if you never speak it. There have been proposals in the US to actually run schools with teachers and students all using Black English. If the kids also use Black English at home, it is hard to see how they ever become fluent in Standard English.

And, if you think it is swell for black kids in the US to grow up without fluency in Standard English, I think your knowledge of basic facts concerning US society is a bit limited.

Perhaps you are transferring your experience in Asia to the USA? That may be a mistake: for example, your own writing is perfectly fluent in English – better, indeed, than many middle-class, white students in the USA.

I think you may be underestimating the level of the crisis in language skills (not just among blacks!) in the US. Incidentally, I am not just addressing dialectal issues here – a lot of American kids really do have trouble expressing their thoughts (or, I suppose one could argue, they have trouble having thoughts about any subject of any seriousness).

Math is not the only educational disaster in the USA!

Dave