Monday, October 1, 2012

Why Do I Need to Study English?

Why Do I Need to Study English?

Below are some excerpts from job descriptions I’ve come across in the last few years:

From a consulting firm: “Requirements include highly sophisticated writing and editing skills.”

A teaching job: “Qualifications include superior writing and editing ability.”

Healthcare: “Demonstrated written and verbal communications skills and strong analytical skills required.”

Among a list of qualifications for a marketing position: “Well-developed ability to write and edit copy.”

In fact, it’s rare to see a job application which doesn’t ask for some kind of demonstration of writing ability. You think colleges really care which fictional character most influenced you? Not so much. College statements of purpose, like cover letters for job applications, exist to give the application reviewer an opportunity to evaluate your skills as a writer.
I don’t mean to overstate my case here. You don’t have to be William Faulkner to get into college. And of course employers look for other qualities besides writing ability: talent and experience, for example. While basic writing skills—like the ability to construct effective paragraphs, use punctuation correctly, and employ a wide vocabulary—are rarely enough by themselves to make somebody stand out to an employer, the lack of these skills is definitely a dealbreaker. Businesses know that it’s hard to do well in any field without speaking the language of public life.

It’s not at all fair that making a positive impression means mastering grammar rules that were written centuries ago. In a fascinating book about the difficulties of teaching, Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit tells the story of an Alaskan middle school teacher trying to explain to her students why learning the rules of conventional English is so important. Making a distinction between her own classroom and the world around it, she says:

We listen to the way people talk, not to judge them, but to tell what part of the river they come from. These other people are not like that. They think everybody needs to talk like them. Unlike us, they have a hard time hearing what people say if they don’t talk exactly like them. Their way of talking and writing is called ‘Formal English.’ We have to feel a little sorry for them because they have only one way to talk. We’re going to learn two ways to say things.[1]

Personally, I think this teacher is a bit too hard on the promoters of Formal English. I have to admit that I myself am one of “these other people” who make judgments based on speech, but that doesn’t make me closed minded or oppressive—at least I hope not. The essence of this statement, though, is absolutely right. We all have a hard time understanding speech and writing that flouts Formal English. As arbitrary as some of the rules may be—although many of them are not arbitrary at all—knowing the rules of Formal English is like a badge which proves your belonging in a club of professional English speakers. It’s a club in which you have to renew your membership every day, but it’s also a club that’s very worthwhile to be a part of.

[1] Delpit, Lisa. Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New York: The New Press, 2006. (41)

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