English for the natives by Harry Ritchie
English for the natives by Harry Ritchie – Discover the grammar you don’t know you know. I got this book from the library because I wanted to review a bit of grammar, in preparation for a test I’m taking. Well, this book proved to be a terrible choice. In the same book he defends the use of, how to put it, non-standard grammar (as in incorrect), but talks a lot about Chomsky and his theories. It’s puzzling indeed. Also, his way of talking about EFL (English as a foreign language) is condescending. Apparently, we people have issues with basics like “the” and we would never be able to speak as a native. Imagine my surprise to read that, after reading A Short History of Decay by Emil Cioran, an acclaimed philosophy book written by a Romanian in French, one of many books by him. I’ve also read a book in English by a Romanian and it was just as fluent and coherent as one written by a native. I know I should have stopped reading at that point, but I hoped it would get better.
I’m going to talk about the things I didn’t like in the book. Be aware that this is more a rant, than a review though, because I gave the book only 1 star and I wouldn’t recommend it.
“Every time a non-standard speaker uses a non-standard grammatical form to a standard speaker, it is noted.” Continues to say that “Standard’s rejection of non-standard happens everywhere English is spoken, of course, but nowhere as thoroughly as in Britain, where language and class are most intimately intertwined.” No worries, this is not based on a study or research, but just his own personal opinion. His conclusion is that this is fuelled by social prejudice. He does say at one point that, “children whose parents were on welfare heard on average 600 words an hour addressed to them, children with parents in blue-collar jobs 1,200, and children of professionals 2,100.” This is based on research and it proved that is not prejudice, the children with parents from lower classes hear “stop-thats and shut-ups” more than the other children and, I would add, hear incorrect grammar as well, so they learn what is for them a “proper way of speaking”. In Britain and US, most of people on welfare are less educated as well. In developed societies we can do more, but that’s not the scope of the book.
I don’t link proper grammar to class, but to education, extrapolating from my personal experience. In Romanian cities, following the Communist dream that everybody is the same, people from the lower classes of society live in the same block of flats as the ones that are educated. Thirty years ago, you were able to see a Director and an Engineer living in the same kind of apartment as someone with five or six children, due to repartition made by the Communist party. My grandparents were in this situation, the ones living on the flat above had a low paid job, but lots of children; that was the aim of the communist party. This is still the case, as after the fall of the iron curtain, people were in a position to buy their apartments at low prices.
Maybe this is why, that unlike Britain, in Romania, the accents are just as much frowned upon as grammatical errors. I had colleagues from the northern parts of the country that wouldn’t have dreamed of speaking with an accent while in Bucharest. They would use their accents when back north, with family and friends. Furthermore, there are some funny memes in English, like “I helped my uncle jack off a horse” and the one with “knowing your shit”. There is one in Romanian too, “Writes “miau” like the cat.” Miau is the Romanian for meow and differs from Mi-au that means Me followed by an auxiliary verb. I’m always amused by that.
In the book, Ritchie talks a lot about EFL students, and says things like:
“You can see the differences between the two present tenses in the examples below (you can although many a hapless EFL student certainly will not):
I live in Bristol. – I am living in Bristol.”
Well, English is my second language, and I know the difference. Even if someone else can be fuzzy about the meaning, if they know enough English, they would know there is a difference. I was puzzled by some of the examples he gave. As someone educated at Oxford, I would have imagined he would have encountered people for which English was a foreign language; they would be proficient non the less.
The last thing I’m going to talk about is literature. He compares Barbara Cartland with Shakespeare, by saying that “are personal opinions about human creations, subjective terms with no reference to any external, objective measuring stick”. Oh dear, I have no idea if he read Barbara Cartland, but I did. I also read Shakespeare, but that makes no difference between which one is better. The only thing these two authors have in common is that both wrote works of fiction. Shakespeare is better because he is more relevant, his plays are not only stories, but a way in which political propaganda was made in those days (no, them days wouldn’t work, despite reassurances given in the book that language is fluid and if most people speak that way it must be fine). The background of his plays is just as important as the plays, besides, the words and sayings he created are still in use today. While that might not be a measuring stick, it’s pretty close to an objective analysis.
English for the natives by Harry Ritchie
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My rating: 1/5 Star
Would I recommend it: No
Published by: John Murray
Year it was published: 2013
About the author: Harry Ritchie is a writer and literary journalist. Born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, he was educated at Edinburgh University and Oxford University, where he received a DPhil in English literature.
He started his career as a sub-editor on Harpers and Queen magazine, before joining the Sunday Times. He was literary editor, when he resigned in protest at the editor. Ritchie went on as a freelance writer. Ritchie is a Cultural Fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University. He lives in London with the writer and broadcaster Tracey MacLeod and their two sons.
He has written two novels, Friday Night Club (2002) and The Third Party (2006), and four books of non-fiction, including English for the Natives.
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