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English Teachers' Conference, Rotorua

Issue date: 
Monday, 26 August 1991
The Hon Dame Catherine Tizard, GCMG, GCVO, DBE, QSO

More years ago than I like to remember, I left school planning to be an English teacher. I didn't make it. There were a lot of things I planned to do that I didn't, but even more that I didn't plan on that I did.

I spent the decade of my twenties producing children for other people to teach, and then when, in the words of W. S. Gilbert, through a set of curious chances, I did become a teacher of sorts, I found myself teaching zoology instead.

Not of course that one's training in an older style of English teaching was in any way wasted in the Stage 1 laboratory. In fact, those Greek and Latin roots and the long lists of suffixes; the parsing, prcis-ing and analysing were an excellent basis for establishing patterns of scientific thought and expression. The truth of it is that, twenty years later, I am still probably a better wordsmith than a biologist.

As in-course assessment gained more prominence in the university teaching curriculum during the 60s and 70s, I found that my continuing love of language and respect for the forms and traditions of English were put to good use. Before long, after years of marking many semi-literate, jargon-ridden attempts at reports, my attitude have changed to one of extreme irritation and exasperation at the inability of intelligent young people to express themselves in a clear, straight-forward way.

I spent much of my marking time putting lines through paragraphs of polysyllabic pomposity and replacing them with a single sentence or a few plain words.

This was very good for me. I don't know whether my efforts did much to change either the literary style or the thought processes of the students, but the discipline was to my advantage. I suspect that by the time students reach university, the die is cast as far as the use of language is concerned.

Looking back down the years, I think my interest in English as a study developed at an interesting time in teaching in New Zealand secondary schools. The heavy emphasis on classics was a thing of the past by the 1940s and newer concepts and subjects were being introduced into the school curriculum. The strongly traditional root system of an older time was beginning to show growth in a New Zealand that was consciously recognising its own identity.

If I have it aright, the New Zealand school system is at another such time of change with the current upheaval in the whole world of education, the curriculum review and a new draft syllabus presently on hold.

The world of teaching English still, it appears, reflects differences in attitude and emphasis between those teachers who are oriented toward the more traditional approach - Shakespeare, English literature, grammar - and those for whom the medium is the message and who teach production English and understand about videos, computers and newspaper production. New Zealand nationalism, bilingualism, taha Mori, feminism, must all add new components to the teaching of English.

And this is as it must be. When I look at the level of technical expertise alone that is demanded of a teacher today, I am rather relieved that I never made it. As one is who is just now, for the first time, struggling rather ineptly to come to terms with a personal computer, I think I had better confine my efforts to rear-guard attempts to stem the easy acceptance of change in meaning, in grammar and in the pronunciation of the language.

I am not by nature an extreme conservative. English is a living language and thus, by definition, a changing one, but the pace of change in meaning is debasing language as the culture of culture and meaning.

It has been an interesting experience for me to live with young people again for the first time in many years - live with, rather than just meet or teach young adults. In the daily round of travelling and sitting over meals together I have realised that the generation gap in some areas of life is, in fact, a cultural chasm - a chastening experience for one who has always thought of herself as being rather "with it".

Nowhere is this more apparent than in our respective understandings of the meaning and implications of words and expressions. The sources of some shifts in dialect and pronunciation are obviously attributable to the ubiquity of popular TV programmes.

For instance, I imagine that we no longer "deal with" anything, but "deal to" it results from British Midland TV - at least, my Yorkshire driver in Auckland used to say that he would "deal to" a problem for me and he wasn't a card player either. (Fowler says "deal" needs "with". Does Fowler count for anything any longer? Do young people get referred to Modern English Usage or to Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage for reference today?) Why do we not take our leisure "at" the weekend any more, but "on" the weekend?

When did the word "fantasy" lose its purely imaginary connotation and become only happy or positive visioning, that is, become an antonym of nightmare?

How did that powerful pejorative word meaning a monstrous wickedness or a gross moral lapse - an enormity - become diluted to refer to something greater than normal?: an enormity indeed. My complaint is not that words change, and indeed if they didn't we would still be using Dr Johnson's Dictionary, but rather that the changes are not evolutions but mutations - ugly ones, some of them are, at that. One can go to any book of common English errors and find these misuses of words, along with "disinterested" for "uninterested", and you can add your own "favourite" list to mine, but the wrong usages seem to be accepted with compliance and complacency. The media are redefining the language and no-one seems to fight back. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps every time a TV producer talks about the "envinement" and leaves out the central syllable, or omits the first "c" from Antarctica, or pronounces "nuclear" as "nucular", there is a flood of irate pedants complaining to TVNZ. I suspect not, though.

Given that our whole world has been turned upside-down in the last six years, politically, socially, and in the world of education, perhaps it is unreasonable and irrational to expect anything different of language.

David Reisman in Storytellers as Tutors said, "Words not only affect us temporarily, they change us, they socialise or unsocialise us."

Think of political rhetoric - the polspeak of the past few years has certainly made its way into our everyday lives - words like transparency, accountability, service delivery, shared pain These words have not only numbed us through repetition, but the words have been rendered meaningless in their normal usage. Most recently, although "apple pie" seems to be intact, "motherhood" has certainly joined the ranks of debased words. Most mothers of my acquaintance would not want to be associated with the recent Budget.

George Orwell in 1950 said, "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long word and an exhausted idioms like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."

As I am supposed to be an apolitical person these days, I have perhaps better leave this theme there, and turn to another area of concern which has been much written-about recently, and which also has serious implications of the use of language. I have already touched on my own lack of competence with computers and am very much aware that within a few years, I will be part of an ever-dwindling minority in this country. In his book Techostress: The Human Cost of the Computer Revolution, Craig Brod, a psychologist from America, coined the term "technostress" to describe the type of stress unique to computer users. He puts the thesis that we are all being socialised to be more at ease with technology than with people; more at home with things than with each other. Many other psychologists warn that computers are weakening our empathy, altering our concept of the erotic and have generally steamrolled over our emotional cells.

If it is true that we are becoming what we observe, then those who work with computers run the risk of becoming automatons who identify more with machines than with humans. Sociologists and psychologists are worried about what computers are teaching us about the rest of the world.

Like a corporate version of Star Trek's Mr Spock, those who work closely with computers, the psychologists say, often come to stress logic over emotions. They get upset over emotions, they get upset when situations require dealing with grey areas and fuzzy arguments. They lose patience with people who have trouble getting to the point and lack the vocabulary to deal with such situations. They prefer contacting others through computers rather than face-to-face or on the phone.

Others worry that computers will take away our sense of creativity and wonder, and Dr Tom Lynch, a computer psychologist, says he sees many cases where working closely with a computer can narrow workers' focus and often stifle their creativity as they try to become more like the machine they use. "In order to get things to work, they [computer professionals] have to think in the way the computer dictates, the way the software works. If you are using WordPerfect, you have to think as WordPerfect does. You start to think one straight way instead of having a broad perspective."

I find this a rather chilling scenario, not just because it involves skills and technologies that are foreign to me, but because it seems to indicated such a narrowing-down of our use of language and consequently, our thought processes. Of course, all sorts of groups seek to convey and interpret meaning in their own ways.

Women have ways of speaking among themselves, as I am sure men do, and other ways of interpreting what is being said to them by men. There is plenty of linguistic research in that area. Working people have their own work songs, jokes and language. The language of business with all the jargon of corporate dealing, business letters, memos, exchanges and banks is a closed shop to many of us. Lawyers of course are unintelligible to most of us. They make their living trying to interpret and translate what other lawyers have written. Meanings extracted from any form of written or spoken communication depends on whose English it is, and who is trying to interpret it.

And then there is the dialogue which goes on between books themselves - for instance, history and science. Each has a very precise use of particular language. Books talk to books. When one studies, one needs to know who the author is and who has written in the field previously, because we know that will colour the content and interpretation of our author. Authors start from a point of view and set out to reinforce, add to, rebut or modify what someone else has already written, and in the ensuing dialogue between authors and publications, a body of knowledge and learning is built up.

As well as lasting global literature with its universal truths about the human situation which allows Japanese to wax enthusiastic about Shakespeare's Hamlet in a samurai setting and in Japanese, there is a huge body of popular fleeting information needed for social interaction.

What can we make of the popular mass media, of signs, advertising, manuals, directories, instructions of a bureaucracy - let alone your own tax return - if we do not have a facility with this type of English.

We have learned that it is often the written driving test which brings non-reading school leavers to adult literacy tutors.

There has been a good deal of research and writing recently on the problems of the inarticulate which show up in violence, lashing out in frustration or through a sense of powerlessness. People's fists do their talking for them.

This conference is attended by teachers who are increasingly doers, needing many skills and much experience of diverse fields of communication and technology. As our societies become more complex, so does your task. To return to the theme of this conference - "Strong Roots, Vigorous Growth" - perhaps I have spent rather too much time on my feeling for the roots. Having the goal of the fully developed, strong, straight mature tree and all the right tools and sensitivities to help it through the vigorous growth between is your job, but it is a job that must be shared by the rest of us as well.

The trees won't all be the same. We wouldn't want them to be. That's after all what makes the New Zealand bush so attractive - its healthy, beautiful diversity.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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