Learner’s guides and sketch grammars

I’m occasionally asked about different types of language learning materials, such as what the difference is between a “sketch grammar”, a “textbook” and a “learner’s guide”. I think the difference is one of audience/function more than anything else – it’s not necessarily the information that goes into them.

A sketch grammar is written for linguists. It’s like a reference grammar but it’s shorter. It contains basic information about phonology, syntax, and morphology (and maybe a text or two) but not too much else. Most of the Lincom Languages of the World/Materials series are sketch grammars. Such books aren’t usually very easy to use to learn a language from. They usually don’t contain a wordlist (or if they do, it won’t necessarily contain helpful vocabulary), they aren’t laid out in a pedagogically friendly way and there’s usually no attempt to explain technical terms.

A textbook is primarily written for school use. There is an implicit assumption that there will be a teacher (or that the student will have somewhere to go for help). They are usually set out by subject theme rather than by linguistic concept (e.g. a chapter heading is more likely to be “going to the cinema”, than “adjectives”). They often avoid talking about grammatical terminology at all.* Textbooks usually don’t teach phonology overtly either (although they will usually contain information about the sounds of the language).

A learner’s guide is a bit of a catch-all. The audience isn’t assumed to be school kids (that is, it’s not assumed that the language will be learned in a classroom situation). The learner’s guides are often written by linguists and assume a sketch grammar model, but they contain less linguistic terminology (or they explain the terms they use).

*<rant>: I have never understood this. Why should a concept be any easier to master if it’s not identified or named?? </rant>


One response to “Learner’s guides and sketch grammars

  1. Regarding the rant: there’s a lot to be said for avoiding unnecessary grammatical terminology. Linguists have a tendency to assume that it’s for the best for every language learner to internalize the metalanguage of our field’s jargon—in effect making the lay learner have to learn two languages at once. In my experience, unless someone already has linguist-y tendencies, even jargon we linguists might perceive as basic—singular/plural, subject/object—are often experienced as pretty impenetrable and intimidating, and only add to the sense that there’s no chance of really learning this language.

    Our jargon is convenient time-saver: it certainly doesn’t necessarily convey the concepts any better than a presentation expressed in ordinary terms, one that is based on direct appeal to a speaker’s practical, daily-life understanding of use of language.

    There’s another reason for thinking twice about busting out with the terminology. Stopping to see if we the linguists *can* actually convey the concept usefully without appeal to technical jargon is a really good test of exactly how well we actually understand the concept ourselves. In Algonquianist linguistics, for example, I think we tend to hide behind the clever-sounding term “obviation” a vast deep ignorance of what it does and especially, how it’s used. The fact that its Latinate form sounds semi-familiar (“obvious”, “obviate”) and is bandied about with seeming ease by its users really does give the false impression that we know what we’re talking about.

    That’s an impression that continues with “…and so if you don’t understand obviation, it’s your fault, not ours.”

    Indeed, in our field, we have a host of well-established terms: “conjunct”, “subjunctive”, “subordinative”, and, worst of all, the “animate/inanimate” contrast—all of which are, near as I can tell, pretty easy to explain in everyday terms (perhaps even easier, to be honest), and yet cause endless trouble to lay learners who are presented with Algonquian grammars packaged in these lumbering, clunky opacities.

    So it’s to our benefit and theirs to think first about what’s really lurking in each lump of jargon. For the linguist, it’s an exercise in grounding, and for the lay learner, it means a much more accessible presentation.

    That said, this is no argument for dispensing with grammatical terminology for its own sake—just that we should never use it to hide our own ignorance behind that easy veil of authoritative-sounding technical linguistic register, and certainly never assume that it explains itself.

    It’s a great irony that our study of a fundamental chunk of human communication so often ends up as an intellectually and, especially, aesthetically/emotionally isolating experience. The more practice we get in putting our intellectual experience in everyday terms, the more easily we can share with others the real deep earthy joy we find in our work as linguists.

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