Now what IS the right answer?

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Tolerance for uncertainty does not seem to be one of humanities biggest strengths. We sometimes seem more willing to believe lies when asserted or claimed strongly (and grammatically) as facts (thereby becoming truth) than live with an answer like ‘It depends’.

During the pandemic, we could all observe science in the making. As the virus and everything connected to this world-wide situation was new, virologists, doctors and other involved scientists observed what was happening as closely as possible. They were constantly trying to come up with the best conclusions and advice possible at any given time to protect us all. They didn’t always all agree, they said things that later turned out to not have been quite correct, or not correct anymore. Some observations turned out to be just mere correlations. In other words, knowledge changed and normal scientific disputes unfolded; processes we often don’t see or realize when we are not the experts involved. Way too often, and especially in popular and social media, knowledge is presented as irrutable fact. The fuzzy edges of any kind of insights are cut clean, the often preliminary or temporary nature of knowledge ignored.

During the pandemic, we had to accept that people were affected by the virus differently. We had to realize how different our individual bodies are, and also our circumstances, and how these differences affected the way we, or our bodies and their immune systems, reacted to the virus. In other words, the whole complex of knowledge development was out there for all to see.

But instead of listening, watching, learning and hoping that the insights gained would help us master the situation, you heard people complain: ‘They don’t know, they don’t agree; one says this, the other that. They don’t know what they are talking about these so-called experts….etc.’ The natural uncertainty of a novel situation and the impossibility of always coming up with a right solution at a given time was blamed on those conducting the research.

‘It depends’ is also sometimes my answer when confronted with the question ‘What IS the right answer?’, e.g. in the context of a language exercise. When deciding what to say or write, we often have choices.

I’m not saying “anything goes”. Some things said or written we would consider wrong or definitely not in line with what any native speaker would say. Words, sentences or phrases are sometimes used by non-native speakers in ways that just don’t sound natural in the ears of a native speaker. But there is a large amount of variety in any language and in the end it is meanings we want to express.

How meaning is organized in any language is what we call its grammar. How words, phrases, morphemes are arranged is at the core of a language system – how it works, so to say. Sometimes we can move parts around without much changing the core meaning of what we want to express. Sometimes even a little change in form leads to a change in meaning.

The difference between ‘grammar as fact’ and ‘grammar as choice’ (Michael Lewis, 1986, The English Verb) is a distinction I believe to be important when learning a language. It can also be quite an interesting quest: Which aspects of English grammar would we clearly determine as based on essential unchanging rules – no alternatives accepted? When are differences or variations dialectal, and when just plain wrong?

English, so widely spoken, has been influenced by many other languages, especially in the area of vocabulary. It has the highest number of non-native speakers of any language and a large number of different standard versions (see David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, revised edition 2019).

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Still I find that English in its basics is a highly regular language. Especially when it comes to verb structure grammar. I have tried to describe these basics on my page above: ‘The Verb Structure Circle’.

For a deeper observation of choices and variability, we need to look at language in context. Any decontextualized sentence in an exercise can be constructed in such a way that only one solution seems ‘correct’ – something everyone is familiar with from school. But when we look at a text, we find that the author made certain choices that another might not have made. We all know from our own experience with our native languages that we can express things in different ways. I have now been struggling with my text until this point, changing, rewriting, editing this post for several hours now, feeling that I have spent quite some time for what seems to be not much more than one page. In addition I also feel that I had intended to write about something slightly different, ending up with what I am writing now, having forgotten my original thoughts (that I had while jogging this morning).

In other words, language use is flexible, variable and creative. Why then do we so often ask ‘what is the right answer?’ when learning a second or foreign language?


(still under construction, until completed, try to come up with your own examples)

I cannot speak for all varieties, but let’s take up the quest and find out more about facts versus choices. Take a look at the sentences below and decide which ones might be a) standard, b) acceptable as a variety, c) not quite right, but still comprehensible, d) downright wrong and completey off:

  1. I don’t be on time today.
  2. I don’t make it today.
  3. I didn’t drove yesterday.
  4. If we will be able to get tickets, we will go to the concert on the weekend.
  5. If we can get tickets, we will go.
  6. They will travel to Spain next week.
  7. They’re going to Canada in August.
  8. I like travelling in sommer more than in winter.
  9. We might could go to the movies tonight.
  10. She has been to London last week.
  11. He didn’t went with her, as he must had to work.
  12. I’m going to the dentist today, I was lucky to get an appointment.
  13. I’m lucky that I got an appointment.

When it comes to pronunciation, stress patterns are very important. Take a look at two syllable words in German and in English and find out where the stress lies in most cases – if there is a tendency. Then explain the pronunciation of hotel/Hotel and Berlin (if possible).

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