Natural Acquisition of Grammar/Usage Skills
February 11, 2015 12:43 PM   Subscribe

I'm curious to hear the experiences of people with good writing skills who were raised in families with poor language usage.

I was raised by parents who spoke grammatically. As a result, I can look at a sentence I've just written and determine whether it's grammatical simply by passing it through my inner "ear". If it's not grammatical, it sounds off...even if I can't point to a usage rule that's been violated.

I often wonder what it would be like not to have developed that faculty - i.e. if correct usage had been learned later, like a foreign language. I'd think I'd find it really hard to edit my writing if my intuitive "ear" for correct usage wasn't instilled early on.

If you weren't closely exposed to correct grammar in daily life until later on, I'm curious about your experience. Are you nonetheless able to intuit bad grammar from the sound of it, or do you resort to a more analytical, rules-based approach?
posted by Quisp Lover to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Through years and years of obsessive reading of every book I could get my hands on as a youth and teen.
posted by aught at 12:48 PM on February 11, 2015 [10 favorites]

Isn't all dialogue grammatically correct within that dialect?

Minor quibble aside, re: foreign language usage, having learned a couple of foreign languages in my childhood, at a certain level of fluency you end up developing another inner ear, but it's never perfect. I can't imagine what a rules-based approach would look like.
posted by tooloudinhere at 12:53 PM on February 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Husbunny grew up in Appalachia and his folks, speak with VERY pronounced Appalachian English. I mean, we need to get his Mom to StoryCorp because someone needs to capture it. This is the language/accent you hear Cletus Spuckler use.

He taught himself to read at around age 2 and he's a genius at mathematics. His parents didn't get further than high school. His Mom has always been a reader though, so there were books in his house.

Weirdly he doesn't have a pronounced southern accent, if you heard him talk, you wouldn't detect anything. He does pronounce Can't as Cain't. Also, he uses the hard G instead of the soft G in words like gesture. I think this is because he's read the words before he heard anyone use them.

So there's a certain amount of intelligence and precocity in how this happened. He claims that he just watched a lot of television and that accounts for his grammar/syntax and accent. We know that there has to be a certain amount interaction for language learning, but Husbunny's brain is wired differently from yours or mine.

He learned German well enough in college to accept a post-graduate fellowship in Germany in Mathematics. I mean, you talk about Chinese Algebra being hard...

So, there's a data point for you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:01 PM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh! And to answer the question he has an excellent ear for standard grammar and syntax. He writes professionally as a hobby.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:02 PM on February 11, 2015

Isn't all dialogue grammatically correct within that dialect?

Yes, I wanted to say something akin to this. It's not a matter of correct/incorrect (to one's ear) as a switch in register. This comes with a caveat/disclaimer that I did not "grow up in a family with poor language use", but that I can switch between dialect and Hochdeutsch in German. Each is "correct" within its context and I will automatically adapt - after a while - to the environment.

I do this in English as well. When I first moved here I sounded pretty RP (with some 70es London thrown in, apparently, as I learnt much of my English from Queen VHS's. The band, not the monarch). My English is much more colloquial now, and "incorrect" grammar slips in sometimes (I'll notice immediately that it is, but it's still what sounds "right" to me at the time and therefore comes out of my mouth that way).
posted by ClarissaWAM at 1:05 PM on February 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

Television and books.
posted by rue72 at 1:09 PM on February 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Through years and years of obsessive reading of every book I could get my hands on as a youth and teen.

This. Also, a lot of public speaking as a teenager (thanks, Dad!).
posted by loolie at 1:10 PM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

The people I know who grew up in homes with non-standard English spoken, and who have great language skills despite that, were all voracious and dedicated readers from an early age.
posted by quince at 1:12 PM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I often wonder what it would be like not to have developed that faculty - i.e. if correct usage had been learned later, like a foreign language

I agree that you're making some incorrect assumptions here. If you learn a foreign language well enough, you do develop that "ear" The moment you leave rules behind is when you can genuinely start using a new language.

I was raised by parents who spoke grammatically. As a result...

I, like many others, was raised by parents who did not speak English. So I'd say parents are not the sole source of learned grammar.
posted by vacapinta at 1:16 PM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

heavy reading.
posted by anthropomorphic at 1:34 PM on February 11, 2015

Books books books.
posted by Paris Elk at 1:45 PM on February 11, 2015

Everybody acquires the grammar of their native language naturally. In terms of the spoken language, it's simply not accurate to call dialects ungrammatical or incorrect.

What you're talking about sounds like the intersection of being able to read a sentence and tell whether it sounds grammatical to you, while also having the English that you speak be a variety that corresponds pretty closely to written standards for English (i.e., those with the most cachet).

Reading a lot, and being exposed to enough examples of what various editors believe is correct, is probably the best way to get a good grasp on what would be seen by others as standard written language.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 1:53 PM on February 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

I work as a professional writer and editor in English. I'm not a native speaker of English, by the way, but I've developed fluency + style thanks to books and years of experience. Nowadays I would consider myself bilingual but I didn't grow up as such.

I grew up in a working class home where language usage was and is relaxed. I was an obsessive reader from a young age and I went on to go to University as the first person in my family. So, yes, books.

Having said that, it is worth noting that hardly nobody speaks "properly". Well-educated native speakers keep slipping up too. It's worth listening to tapes of people speaking and you will notice this yourself. Subject-verb agreement is particularly iffy. Sentence construction can be interesting too.
posted by kariebookish at 1:57 PM on February 11, 2015

My mother spoke High German, my father speaks Bavarian dialect. I was always an avid reader and I developed such an inner ear early on. I studied English at school from age 10, added Latin 3 years later and French another two years after that. When I left school I had a reasonable vocabulary in English and good grasp of grammar. As a result my written English was largely correct in terms of grammar but my style was oddly formal and I used odd word choices quite frequently, when I lacked vocabulary in specific areas. I never got very far with Latin or French even though I spent years studying both languages.

Since then, I spent 12 years in the UK. And most of my social and professional reading in the last 16 years has been in English, as has most of my social media and TV consumption. But for the last four years I have been living in the German speaking part of Switzerland. And I speak both High German and English every day, frequently switching between both, even at times when talking to the same person. My teams are international and we use whatever language is appropriate for all people present or lends itself to the subject matter. And my Swiss colleagues speak to me in Swiss German, which I have learned to understand quite well since moving here.

When I lived in an English speaking environment I developed that same inner ear. I could tell if my sentence was grammatically wrong. I had native speakers compliment me on my writing. I was mainly thinking in English and there was no significant effort involved.

Now that I am always switching back and forth between the two languages something very bizarre has happened. Quite often, I will write something - in either language - and it looks off. And then I analyse why and it turns out that I've been using English words and German grammar or vice versus. And I have been known to write something and start using words and grammar for one language but as the email develops, I switch to the other language's grammar. On occasion it's not even just applying the wrong grammar - I've started sentences in one language and finished them in another - words, grammar, everything. Needless to say I have made a habit of proof reading my formal written output very carefully. And it's not just grammar, it's spelling, and number conventions and what have you.

So, at least based on my experience, having well spoken parents is not the only way to acquire this inner ear. Nor do you have to be very young to develop one.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:57 PM on February 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

And re-reading this - you can definitely overexert that poor inner ear if you switch been different languages too much…oh well.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:10 PM on February 11, 2015

I'm a first-gen high school grad, with parents and neighbors who spoke dialect common to Yankee farmers; a form of Appalachian English . Use of "ain't", dropping "g", saying things like "Thank you for all you done", and the like.

My speech and writing are standard; I work as a journalist. It's the influence of reading. In speech, I code switch when talking to family.
posted by jgirl at 3:20 PM on February 11, 2015

People are answering the question "How did you develop educated language skills after having been raised in an environment without proper usage?".

What I asked is whether those raised in environments without proper usage are able to use their inner ear to intuitively suss out the propriety of a given piece of usage, or whether they tend to use less innate, more rule-oriented analysis.

Thanks for answering, koahiatamadl. I'd like more info on your second posting, if you have a sec. How can you "overexert" the inner ear?
posted by Quisp Lover at 3:24 PM on February 11, 2015

Albert Camus was raised by his mother, who was illiterate and had some serious speech/hearing issues. IIRC, he thought that his mother had a vocabulary of about 400 words.
posted by jason's_planet at 4:13 PM on February 11, 2015

My family moved to the US shortly before I turned 4, and we never spoke English at home. My inner ear must have developed through some combination of school, books, and TV, because I definitely use it.

Although my English inner ear is fairly reliable when it comes to things being grammatically correct, it's not always great about catching awkward sentences. That's especially a problem if I've been speaking more Polish than English.
posted by capsizing at 4:51 PM on February 11, 2015

I grew up in the rural deep south. The English language was an absolute mystery to me until I started taking French courses in the fifth grade. That was what made everything snap into focus for me over the years (I took French every time it was available, and ultimately took a BA in it in college, too): a comparative approach to differences between languages was the only thing that made clear what instructors were talking about when they referred to grammar and syntax (and pronunciation and circumlocution and pacing and on and on and on).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 5:08 PM on February 11, 2015

Cletus Spuckker's accent is not even close to Appalachian dialect. He has a deep southern accent. Appalachian English does not dipthongize vowels like that. And accents or dialects are not ever characterized by "poor" grammar, just their own particular grammatical rules.

Pouting out that error above makes the case that your question is poorly formed and that premise of the question is linguistically naive. No one speaks "ungrammatically." Dialects are more and less prestigious or standardized. But within them grammatical choices are rule governed. Education does not teach children to speak grammatically. Growing up does that and by the time a child is 5 or so s/he speaks mostly according to the grammatical rules of her/his community dialect. School just teaches prestige dialects and stigmatizes non-standard ones.

Many answers here confuse literacy and accent with grammar. That's scientifically ignorant of how language works.

All humans speak grammatically.
posted by spitbull at 5:45 PM on February 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

"Although my English inner ear is fairly reliable when it comes to things being grammatically correct, it's not always great about catching awkward sentences. That's especially a problem if I've been speaking more Polish than English."

capsizing: do you have fallback ways of catching these problems? Or are you forced to let them go?

"No one speaks "ungrammatically"

I'm fully aware of the issues re: prescriptive/descriptive language taxonomy, and am, fwiw, squarely on the latter side. But over-backlash on this - or on any other - issue gets silly. There are many styles of language use, and you well know the one I'm referring to. You're pretending not to understand in effort to push me to express myself more to your preference. Which is highly prescriptive, really.
posted by Quisp Lover at 7:16 PM on February 11, 2015

AskMe is not the place to argue the point, but no, I do not accept that "I know well what you are referring to." You are calling non-standard dialects ungrammatical. That, I'm afraid, is pure prescriptivism. This is not "overbacklash." The accusation that non-standard dialects are signs of lower education, intelligence, or effort is a pernicious form of bigotry, and it pervades this thread.

Literally no one is "not exposed to correct grammar early in life" unless they are raised by wolves. No one. Your question makes it sound like it's an obvious condition, up to and including using the word "grammatically" when you mean "standard dialect."

I highly recommend Shirley Brice Heath's "Ways WIth Words." If you really understood the prescriptive/descriptive distinction, you would not have asked the question the way you did.

You asked a linguistic question. I'm a linguist. I gave you the correct scientific answer.
posted by spitbull at 8:13 PM on February 11, 2015 [10 favorites]

Also there is nothing prescriptivist about my correcting your question. That's defensive nonsense. I am being prescriptive about the correct scientific perspective on the question you asked, not about language as such.
posted by spitbull at 8:18 PM on February 11, 2015

Kids growing up in households with bad grammar still see TV and movies, where proper English is used. It may be more a difference of what's acceptable and comfortable than what one is capable of understanding.

Also, this isn't the same thing, exactly, but learning how to write in AP style or learning how to write in a news style is different than other kinds of writing. You observe the rules, you learn them and you adhere to them. I've developed a, as you say, AP style "inner ear." Now when I see something that isn't written in AP style, it looks wrong to me.
posted by AppleTurnover at 8:29 PM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a fairly poor household, and I lived in books for most of my childhood. My parents used to give me a hard time because I was a "walking dictionary" and talked "posh" compared to my siblings, who didn't read so avidly. I am also aware of picky details in speech, like when someone uses "less" instead of "fewer" -- that's something my son does and I can't help reminding him when he does it. But I'm also aware that the rules of language are fluid, and that "less" and "fewer" are more and more interchangeable. My son is also a heavy reader, and he has an incredible vocabulary, but I wouldn't say his speech is any different from his peers most of the time. We have the added complication of living in a German-speaking country, so I do notice occasional German grammar structures slipping into his speech.

Maybe that's a generational thing? He probably watches more TV than I did and has some limited access to social media, and when I see something he's posted, he uses jargon that's specific to kids online that I didn't know he knew.
posted by tracicle at 3:03 AM on February 12, 2015

"Kids growing up in households with bad grammar still see TV and movies, where proper English is used."

But is it? A lot of dialog in entertainment is in informal vernacular of one sort or another. The goal is to mirror real life (which is often ungrammatical!) rather than adhere to rigorous standards. I'd imagine it would be quite hard to develop a keen inner ear for proper usage from Hollywood, because of all the noise with the signal. Books (which a few answerers have cited) are a lot more reliable (and I can imagine how they'd help you develop that inner ear). Newspapers, too, but your point about AP style being a separate realm unto itself is both true and interesting (thanks!).

tracicle, the smart, well-read kid speaking like his peers strikes me as fairly typical. Hard to say he's wrong, either. Talking like his peer group while quietly discerning the difference sounds like the best of all worlds! Good adaptation, etc.
posted by Quisp Lover at 7:46 AM on February 12, 2015

(which is often ungrammatical!)

Sigh. No, it's not. Real life language use is typically and always perfectly grammatical. You are using that word incorrectly. This is not a quibble about prescriptivism. It is a challenge to the premise of your question, required for it to be "answered" without descent into judgments that have long been affiliated with classist, sexist, and racist bigotry.

Among the many solid findings of 50 years of sociolinguistic research into dialects, standardization, literacy, language education, and the operation of stigma and prestige (all of it built on top of a consensus neurobiological understanding of language as something organic, natural, heritable, modular in the brain, and species-specific) is the following assertion:

Almost all members of modern stratified societies (arguably all stratified societies, period) are not only *aware* of different dialects having different levels of prestige, status, stigma, etc., but can in fact produce verbal output along a continuum of dialect standardization (or indeed multiple overlapping continua), correlated to context, formality of situation, status of interlocutor, and perception of social power. This is Labov, late 1960s, stuff (and why I recommended Shirley Heath above, who took Labov's work into the educational setting to show how "standard dialect is proper grammar" thinking is a tool of class and race oppression in the elementary school classroom). What I mean is that *even if someone normally speaks in a lower prestige dialect* (which again, they do with perfect grammaticality within the terms of that dialect), they recognize and can reproduce more standardized (or literate) forms (and vice versa).

Interestingly, this phenomenon has been widely and solidly proved to be gendered as well as classed and raced (for a nice but dated summary, Jennifer Coates' little textbook "Women, Men, and Language" is a good point of entry). Lower middle class American women have working command of more prestigious registers or dialects than lower middle class men (and sometimes overshoot, or "hypercorrect," in ways that reveal anxiety about stigma for sounding too uneducated/poor). Upper class men have more command of working-class registers than upper class women, and often over-correct ("covert prestige") out of anxiety about stigma for sounding too feminine.

The phenomena of hypercorrection and covert prestige are very well understood in relation to the broader problematic of deference, social hierarchy, and context-specific rules of formality (Brown and Gilman, also 1960s stuff). Feminist sociolinguists have offered various explanations for this, focusing on the still widespread normative expectation that (especially working-class/lower middle class) women are primarily responsible for socializing children for maximum class mobility advantage into social norms of language use, and are likely to work in jobs that involve more cross-class communication, and are likely to be exposed to more media that foregrounds standard dialect (soap operas being the famous example) and to read more (romances being the famous example) than working-class men -- all of this has become a bit dated by now, but still holds broadly in industrialized urban societies throughout the world.

But the big point of that literature is that just because someone speaks a stigmatized dialect doesn't mean they don't *know* the rules or recognize examples of standard or prestige dialects. The difference is in how they interpret the significance of someone applying those rules -- is it snobby? Self-aggrandizing? Putting on airs? Striving for social betterment and class mobility? Trying to keep a job? Trying to get a job? Dealing with authority structures in which your stigmatized dialect is a disadvantage like talking to your kids' teachers (or, as in covert prestige, vice versa)?

Parents of course internalize these social structures and rules. But think about it: for someone to recognize that you are speaking "posh" they have to have internalized a recognition of fairly subtle cues that signal dialectal affiliation with class or education. Or maybe they are concerned about the kid fitting in and not being bullied in a working-class community. Or maybe they simply value other forms of discursive oracy/literacy than those valued by the (classist) educational system. Or they themselves have been bullied and stigmatized all their lives for speaking a non-standard or non-prestige dialect and have internalized that oppression. Maybe they read all the time, but keep their literacy and their oracy separate.

Thought experiment: substitute "gender norms" for "grammatical" here. Imagine a question that asked "What was it like growing up with gender non-conforming parents when you were a gender conformist (or indeed vice versa)? Did you have to sneak pink clothes in your backpack to school so you wouldn't be teased for not being feminine enough as a girl? Did you have to learn to deepen your voice and say homophobic things to signal your masculinity from books or friends because your dad couldn't do these things?

It's a bit of an overdrawn comparison, especially since "stigmatized" dialects are often "covertly prestigious" in particular working-class or rural or minority settings and communities and families (so in fact, gender conformity works sort of the other way around, with much stronger normative pressures in working-class communities than in upper class communities). But it helps to see that dialect usage is *entirely socially constructed* as to its significance for identity, intelligence, effort, etc. THERE IS NO "BAD" GRAMMAR in spoken discourse. It's a spurious, unscientific concept. It's an oppressive one too. (And I be hatin on it, he said perfectly grammatically for AAVE.)

There's a way to rephrase this question -- and how some answers above are taking it reflects this -- as "when did you first become aware of the social norms governing dialect/register/literacy beyond the norms of your immediate family or community?" But the fact is that by the time you ever became aware of such things, you were already speaking the same, grammatical rule-bound language that everyone else speaks, with just a few dialect parameters set one way or the other based on your family's circumstances and location. So grammaticality in the absolute linguistic sense has zero to do with the social construction of prescriptive "grammar" (or literacy, or a big vocabulary, or a proper "accent") as a marker of social distinction.

Asked that way, the question would generate fewer casually, and of course likely unintentionally, bigoted answers than it has.

And by the way, other than "reality" television's recent rise," even the most working-class targeted forms of mass media entertainment have tended to enshrine higher class norms of dialect prestige, and media targeted to women especially so (and women typically control children's media exposure much more than men in working-class settings in western societies). So yes, media exposure is a well studied and widely agreed upon influence on childrens' divergence from their parental and community dialects toward more prestigious forms, and no matter what you are hearing when you turn on the TV, it's usually stereotyped mockery of stigmatized dialects presented for humor and with every intention of perpetuating and deepening the stigma. So "Cletus Spuckler" characters may speak in (a prestige dialect speaker's disparaging version of) a vernacular, low-status dialect, but hearing him in the context of Bart and even Homer -- who speak in something very close to standard English dialect grammar, albeit with some typically masculine efforts at covert prestige, surely familiar to the writers of the show) or Marge (who hypercorrects like crazy, speaks in full sentences like she was reading from a book, etc.) -- is meant to convey disparagement and stigmatization. Cletus Spuckler is supposed to be stupid, and one way you are supposed to know that is from the way he speaks in contrast to other characters on the show.

So in other words it's not just grammar/dialect that is "modeled" in books or media, but sociolinguistic attitudes toward dialects and grammars and their associated stigmatization and prestige. Arguably a lot of reality television presents the same mocking view of vernacular dialects of English, so mocking (as the show surely does for most viewers) the way Honey Boo Boo's mother talks is a very effective way of reinforcing the norms of standard prestige dialect.
posted by spitbull at 8:27 AM on February 12, 2015 [9 favorites]

I learned English (as a foreign language) in school. I think I am fluent in English, but you can look at my posting history to judge for yourself.

whether those raised in environments without proper usage are able to use their inner ear to intuitively suss out the propriety of a given piece of usage, or whether they tend to use less innate, more rule-oriented analysis.

No rules. The only rules I tried to learn were the if-clauses, and I still have to look them up whenever I try to remember them. I get much better results when I just use them without thinking. I achieved this by being an avid reader of books and the world wide web since its early days. I think my daily MeFi browsing sessions are helping me maintain my fluency. When my "inner ear" is not up to par, my fallback methods are: Googling (to see if the phrase I was thinking of is indeed both grammatically correct and commonly used) and rephrasing.

But even with my native language, I learned grammar from books, not my family. Everyone around me spoke in one dialect or another, and it was a given (in my culture/home country) that I'd learn how to speak and write "properly" during school years. We were taught that our country's language was a construct based on one of the predominant dialects, but not exactly the same. And we learned about characteristics of different major dialects. So there was never the assumption that "my dialect" is the same as the "official language". Basically, my native language was the dialect spoken by my parents and my second language was the standard language of my country. I think this is the first time I thought about the possibility of acquiring the standard language just from family members!
posted by gakiko at 1:30 PM on February 12, 2015

I grew up in a house where Mandarin Chinese was spoken by both parents and at a time when their English was pretty poor. One interesting question to explore, I think, is: can someone acquire an "inner ear" for educated speech if not raised in that linguistic environment? And for me, the answer was YES; the related answer, if how that came about, comes back to books as always. I still have a few quirks of language from the fact that I learned the majority of my English from library books, albeit while immersed in an English-language school/country as a young child; I have to consciously recall how to pronounce words like "freight" and "accept."

But yes, I can unconsciously and instinctively produce upper-class East Coast American English. I've also always had an ear for prescriptive grammar in school. For instance, every SAT study guide will tell you to rely on rules rather than "ear" for responding to questions on the Writing section, but I trust my ear implicitly for both prescriptivist and linguistic grammatical judgments, and I got a perfect score on that section with little to no studying.
posted by serelliya at 10:18 PM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

All human beings rely on their inner intuition to make judgments of grammaticality in their native language. Introducing uneven bilingualism into the equation significant complicates the question.

Chomsky famously proved this with the sentence: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." It means nothing, but any speaker of English (of any dialect) knows that it is a legitimate English sentence by virtue of an instant, intuitive judgment in no way dependent on any formal, conscious knowledge of any of the grammatical rules that make it a sentence of English despite having no referential meaning. The universality of this ability, which again is acquired in large part well before a child ever learns to read or goes to school, is one of the standard pieces of evidence for language as a modular neurobiological heritable faculty. Your "inner ear" for particular dialect styles to which you are not relatively native (which includes formal prescriptive literate grammar, which resembles NO one's dialect exactly) is much more socially acquired in contexts of exposure and use, of course.
posted by spitbull at 12:15 PM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

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