How is it that in a typical English department, the one thing that is hardly taught or studied at all is English – the language, with its history, its variety and its structure? (A recent survey of Russell Group English departments found that only 20 per cent of research-active staff mention any interest at all in language in their personal research profiles.) The same point could be made about other language departments, but we are specialists in the English language so we want to focus on English.
Why now? Because the issue has become critical in our schools. It is up to university departments to decide their own interests and priorities for both teaching and research, but as the main educators for future schoolteachers they should also consider the consequences for schools. The fact is that the language-free content of a BA in English is a poor preparation for the next generation of English teachers, who are under increasing pressure from the national curriculum to teach about language, and particularly grammar. Grammar is not the only issue, but it is a critical one now that an English teacher is expected to teach grammar beyond the level taught, and tested, in primary schools.
For existing English teachers, some universities are offering crash courses in grammar (such as those offered by University College London’s survey of English usage); but at the same time, English departments continue to produce graduates who have never studied either the grammar or any other aspect of their own language. This need not be so, and is not so in most other European countries. An education in English language makes for better English schoolteachers (and, we would argue, better citizens).
Richard Hudson, University College London
Bas Aarts, University College London
David Crystal, Bangor University
David Denison, University of Manchester
Susan Fitzmaurice, University of Sheffield
Lynda Mugglestone, University of Oxford
John Payne, University of Manchester
Laura Wright, University of Cambridge