[lg policy] Russians and Grammar Scolding

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Thu Feb 22 10:56:03 EST 2018

 Russians and Grammar Scolding

[image: Prevalent-language-other-than-English_Spanish]
Slate column “Mueller’s Russia Indictment Is the Moment Grammar Scolds Have
Been Waiting For”
points to some grammatical infelicities and awkward word choices in
political ads and emails apparently written by Russians to make the
argument that “we were wrong to ever let it become uncool to fixate on bad
grammar and slack syntax, no matter what the venue.” I have read through
the short column a few times, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. It
seems to be written to be humorous, and I’d let it go, except the final
line won’t let me. The intended humor isn’t harmless.

Here’s my concern: Saying that scolding people about grammar is patriotic —
even if said tongue in cheek — potentially plays into the idea that
discriminating against people based on being second- or foreign-language
speakers or writers of English is OK and maybe even funny. And it’s not.

Before I go any further into the column’s argument, let me say that I, like
many Americans, am deeply troubled by the evidence of Russian interference
in the U.S. presidential election. And if evidence of features of
second-language writing in some of the ads and emails helped the FBI
special counsel Robert Mueller and his team confirm Russian interference, I
am glad for that. But poking fun at second-language interference in these
ads and emails also troubles me.

The United States has always been a multilingual nation. The rich array of
languages that people speak (captured nicely in maps
<https://apps.mla.org/map_main> from the Modern Language Association, which
will be back online soon), including many varieties of English, is part of
the multiculturalism that is arguably embedded
in the Constitution and that many, many of us celebrate as an important
part of the U.S. and of its history.

Part of being a multilingual nation is that some people in the United
States speak English as a second, third, fourth (you get the idea)
language. And depending on what age they learned English, their spoken and
written English may show traces from their first language(s). The same, of
course, is true for many of us in the U.S. who have learned languages other
than English in high school or college: Our Spanish or Chinese or French or
Swahili or Russian (you get the idea) may well reveal that the language is
not our first language.* I, for one, hope that others will be patient with
me when this happens when I speak or write French, for example — and that
others will try to hear me for what I’m trying to say. In a more formal
setting, I would welcome a gentle correction so that my grammar or word
choice sounds more idiomatic and appropriate to the situation, but a
scolding wouldn’t make me feel welcome in that language. (See here
for more on how I address grammatical infelicities in students’ writing.)

I use the word *welcome* very intentionally here. This is a moment where it
feels all the more important to me to make a diverse, multilingual group of
people feel welcome in the United States. And that means listening to each
other closely rather than scolding about articles or adverbs.


* It is important and helpful, I think, to remember that multilingualism is
a skill/asset that we value as part of our education system: Think about
the foreign-language requirements at many high schools and universities.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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