Got it? A simple English sentence, no fancy words or tricky grammatical twists, just a plain old English sentence that any native speaker can understand. Right? Wrong. Or at least that’s what recent research by Dr. Ewa Dabrowska of Northumbira University suggests. Many English speakers don’t really understand simple English grammar.
Now I’m not pointing any fingers here, at least not at you gentle reader, or at least not to your face. Despite what you read from the TranslationGuy commentariate, I know from heart-breaking experience that anyone who wades through more than a line or two of my posts is a master at parsing meaning from nonsense. I learned long ago that no one knows what the hell I’m talking about most of the time anyway. And all this time I thought it was me. So Dr. Dabrowska’s findings have lifted a great weight from my shoulders, because now I can blame others for my incomprehensibility.
Dabrowska started quizzing adults on reading comprehension of simple phrases like the headline above. Over-educated grad students were tested alongside under-educated people who had left school at 16 or so.
Those quizzed were asked to identify the meaning of a number of simple active and passive sentences, as well as sentences which contained the universal qualifier “every.” The two groups performed very differently. A high proportion of those who had left school at 16 began to make mistakes. Some speakers would have done better if they had just closed their eyes and started checking answers randomly. (I’ve tried this myself, and would not recommend it as a strategy for test takers.)
Dabrowska says, “regardless of educational attainment or dialect we are all supposed to be equally good at grammar, in the sense of being able to use grammatical cues to understand the meaning of sentences. Of course some people are more literate, with a larger vocabulary and greater exposure to highly complex literary constructions. Nevertheless, at a fundamental level, everyone in a linguistic community is supposed to share the same core grammar, in the same way that given normal development we can all walk.”
This means that Noam Chomsky’s idea of a universal grammar is not so universal after all. Test-taking skill, working memory, all those kinds of things did not seem to be affecting results. Chalk it up to stupidity? High school drop-out vs. grad student―seems obvious, right? But check this out: once the drop-outs were taught the rule, they understood it easily. Dabrowska figures that the only reason these less educated speakers did not initially understand was because they were never taught in the first place.
Here’s a link to that brilliant scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the Swamp King encounters similar comprehension problems with his staff, which reminds me of some recent conversations I’ve had with my own colleagues in the past (not, of course, with any of you who read this blog).
Jokey quips aside, I would imagine that this lack of a universal grammar in English can also be found in other languages, and that the range of comprehension among non-literate speakers must be even higher. Lots of implications here for those working in languages that are not taught formally. Does anyone know of any work being done on this?