Monday, 8 September 2014

Woo watch: the minimal pair

I've always wanted there to be a good TEFL podcast on itunes, then two appeared at once. TEFLology and The Minimal Pair. Initially I was excited by this but recent episodes of the minimal pair have left me rather disappointed.  

Their most recent show touched on 'grammar snobs', something I have a keen interest in. From two university educators, I expected,  an enjoyable and thorough debunking of silly prescriptivist rules. Alas the hosts seemed keener to stress that people ought to 'know the rules before they break them' and further stressed how important it was for people to 'follow the rules'. There was never any discussion of why 'the rules' are rules or whether they should be rules at all. One of the hosts seemed a little distraught that Steven Pinker had recently suggested we don't need to worry that much about 'dangling modifiers' and said 'there goes my lesson plan for next week'. -A lesson on dangling modifiers? (O_o)

Oddly 'the pair' defined prescriptive grammar as 'the real technical rules' and descriptive grammar as 'just making yourself understood'. This to me showed something of a lack of understanding of these terms, particularly when one host spent much of the segment relating descriptive grammar to 'textspeak' and saying of it 'if you're in some sort of emergency state and you need to make yourself understood, then whatever'. 

Descriptive grammar (or more properly descriptive linguistics) is just recording  the way people actually communicate. Prescriptive grammar is the way one particular group believes everyone should communicate. One sentence can be viewed differently by both groups. 

For example, with my family I, like many British people, say things like 'where's me coat gone'. Descriptive linguistics would suggest that 'me' is used as a possessive by some people in some situations instead of the more standard 'my'. Prescriptive grammarians would tell you that 'me' is just 'wrong' here and you should stop saying it. Obviously there is a place for both of these approaches, but prescriptivism tends to be the one people take to heart. Humans, for reasons I can't work out, adore being told what 'the rules' are and enjoy even more the delicious thrill of telling others that they're 'getting it wrong'. 

This prescriptivism love-in though, would not normally be enough to land them in the woo watch column. In a later section, when 'the pair' discuss the pros and cons of using PowerPoint to teach, one of them notes how good PowerPoints can be for...you guessed it...visual learners! Apparently, "some students just learn better when they have an image presented to them." It was with great dismay that I heard the host refer listeners back to a special they'd done on visual learners so back I went, and listen I did 

Now I've heard podcast episodes on learning styles before, but this went one further. They presented a segment on both audio learners and visual learners and promised an future episode on kinesthetic learners. were these really the same people who were suggested the use of PowerPoint to teach was controversial? 

So there you have it; prescriptivism and learning styles all in one podcast. Oh 'minimal pair' why must you taunt me!  Later in the episode one of the hosts noted how important it was to teach critical thinking. I couldn't agree more. 

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