“What is a participial phrase?” asked a teacher who was preparing for an interview because her school was being shut down by vested interests.
“No clue,” I said. “Never heard of such a thing.”
She wondered how I had mastered the art of lying so quickly. She refused to believe that I had not heard of such a thing as participial phrase. She opened the grammar book she had brought (a fraction of which is here in the picture) and showed me the phrase.
It was a grammar textbook for grade 8. I flipped through the pages and realised how ineffective English language teaching is in our country. My memory went back to my childhood when they taught me things like Vocative Case and other Cases all of which disappeared without a trace from English grammar eventually.
“See, dear,” I told the teacher, “I didn’t learn English by learning the grammar. Did you learn your mother tongue by learning its grammar?”
She pondered a while and said, “No.”
“If I ask you about things like sandhi and samasam will it make much sense to you?”
“What are those?”
“Yup. I think they are rules about how you join letters or words together to make sentences.”
“Aren’t I making sentences in my language without knowing these rules?”
“Of course, you are. More significantly, you are speaking your language fluently and efficiently without knowing most of the rules that grammarians have made for it.”
She paused again. Good student, I thought. She must be a good teacher. Only good students can be good teachers.
“Which came first then? The language or its grammar?” She asked.
“Isn’t the answer obvious?”
“Are you saying that grammar is immaterial?”
“Not really.” I cited the example of an architect in my village in Kerala who has constructed umpteen houses. He is illiterate. He started working as a bricklayer and eventually became the master architect. The buildings he makes may last longer than those which are made by architects trained professionally in some reputed universities. You know, the Taj Mahal was not built by any university-trained architect. Yet the builders knew the grammar of construction. Without that knowledge they could not have built anything. They leant the rules naturally. The rules were in their blood in fact. Of course, a teacher can be of much help. To help them discover the rules which are already in their blood... Language is no different from architecture or any other art and craft. It is much more natural, in fact. Natural in the sense it comes to you automatically whereas architecture can come naturally only to those who have it in their blood. Language is in everybody’s blood. The child will speak even if you tell it to shut up. The child speaks primarily for three reasons: (1) to express a need; (2) to draw attention to itself; and (3) to draw attention to something else. These are all basic human needs. Language is the primary tool for these. It doesn’t need a teacher really. It needs the environment. Just like the architect in my village got the right environment for materialising what was already in his blood. You know, language flows into the veins of the child along with the mother’s milk. That’s why it’s called mother tongue. And for learning another language, you have to become a child again. Sucking it into your veins.
“How do I tell these things in the interview?” asked the teacher.
“Tell them that if they want their students to master a language they should create an environment that is bathed in the language.”
She was convinced. But she thought I was crazy. When she left I googled for participial phrase. There it was staring at me like some missionary who was determined to baptise me with yet another unholy water.