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I have been relatively new to translators’ sites, but on a discussion forum, I’ve already come across a lot of very professional explanations of problems in English. Translators are language experts after all.

However, I’ve recently seen a question that, surprisingly, at first sight, veiled the sight of professionals as well. The question was about how to translate the following part of a test into another language:

“Q X. The School of Art is
a. moving to a new site in the near future
b. lifting to a new site in the near future
c. sending to a new site in the near future”

The asker (somewhat grammatically incorrectly) said “I think that answers B and C are not grammatically corrects” but asked for other people’s opinion.

My feeling is that the foreign language teaching which we all underwent at a young age left an indelible mark on us to an extent that most of the best language professionals still think in terms of grammar when faced with wrong language items. They clearly identify what is wrong language, but when the question referred to wrong grammar, they left it at that and were mostly busy discussing how strange the idea is to translate a language test into another language. That is also a very valid question, but at the same time, of the 5 or 6 people involved in the discussion, only one pointed out that it is not the grammar which is wrong, but “it’s a problem of vocabulary — simply the incorrect choice of verb”. And this amazed me.

I suspect that language teaching that focuses on grammar leads to a tunnel vision of languages with most of us, and we accept all, or most, language mistakes to be those of grammar, the rest being allowed for spelling and punctuation, but which are almost never pointed out to fellow professionals for fear of being called impolite.

In this particular case, what was really important was indeed the incorrect two choices. But, though asked about grammar, some people may have also been afraid to correct the conceptual mistake. Yes, grammar is usually to blame. To a language teacher, this indicates that treating vocabulary, or lexis, as increasingly referred to at least since Michael Lewis’ ‘lexical approach’ appeared in ELT, is still the basic concept we deal with about language. His work has apparently not gained enough kudos to counteract the good old reference to ‘grammar’, whatever is understood under this umbrella term.

Besides, one other very valid point was also raised, namely, to what extent wrong language can be called incorrect. It often happens in language classes that teachers (or native voluntary helpers here in the Netherlands) jump on any mistake learners make. Besides possibly intimidating most learners, this also overshadows the fact that language is for communicating ideas even through mistakes. Haven’t we all, as babies, started out making millions of mistakes, and yet, our families understood us the way we intended? There was correction, too, but it was not only patient, it also accepted the extent the faulty language was still communicative enough.

Besides, it was all done without reference to ‘grammar’. I increasingly suspect that the concept itself is to blame for the mere question. If it is enough for language professionals, and indeed all native and high, or even mid-level speakers of the language to identify a mistake as wrong, is it necessary to call it a name and thereby fall back on falsely trained concepts? If we have to teach along lines of concepts at all, then teachers and learners should learn to call a spade a spade and call a wrong word a mistake of lexis, and not grammar. Or abandon ‘grammar’ almost completely.

It is also time to point out to language learners that when they make lexical mistakes, they may be grammatically correct, but most lexical mistakes are completely wrong because of the meaning, and often simply because of general usage. In schools, the stress is on grammar, whereas the most urgently necessary material to be learned is vocabulary, and in the proper usage. Without lexis, grammar is dead, but proper words have a meaning even when ungrammatically used. “Papa, rug pein?” with good intonation is completely understandable from the toddler, although an applicant at a Dutch language exam would fail. “Kici, nagyi?” is completely wrong Hungarian even on pronunciation level, yet all Hungarians in Chinese take-aways understand this in Budapest and react without problems. This importance of lexis is perhaps most apparent using Chinese, a language rather void of grammar, when, for example, politely asking someone to “Qing zuo ba” would become wrong if we changed the declining voice pattern on ‘zuò’ to ‘zuǒ’ (as in 坐 v. 左). Of course, the context helps, and in the case of Chinese, due to the characteristics of the language, phrases with wrong tones are still understood. But a mistake is a mistake, but it is almost never one of grammar, especially in writing.

This all shows as well how mistaken language testing itself could be, and that language tests should not be translated. Language tests are to measure the level of use of language of learners based on the characteristics of the given language, not of another one. Also, tests do not provide context, even for grammatical correctness. Thus teachers and then tests end up having to transcribe active sentences to passive “equivalents”, which, in the vast majority of cases, cannot sensibly be done. What would be the active version of “The last member of the family could not be rescued from the burning house”? An accusation against whom? The normal British press item “Our government has failed to realize the threat involved in allowing hedge funds to ….” would be completely unheard-of if translated into Hungarian without using an impersonalized kind of language reminiscent of passive voice, but such a Hungarian item would lose all its usual critical edge translated into English in the passive, as a result of the fact that no acting party would be mentioned as subject. Languages have their internal characteristics besides and above mere ‘grammar’. But when the question turns to ‘correct grammar’, even a native language professional suggests, however tentatively, that in sentence C above, the passive would be more correct. Except for the meaning involved.

by P. S.