Lane Greene of The Economist has another good “Johnson” column; this time he’s focusing on the importance of register:
I began learning Portuguese from an old secondhand book that taught forms like comê-lo-ia, which I dutifully studied, grumbling “who on Earth says this?” If only someone had answered “nobody”. When I finally talked to Brazilians, their Portuguese resembled my textbook in roughly the way that a Picasso resembles its subject. Sadly, many traditional textbooks still teach Portuguese this way—including to native speakers in Brazil.
All languages change, but as they do, some language groups are more willing to update the formal grammar books than others. If the books don’t change, but the spoken language does—the typical case—the two forms gradually drift apart.
This is a shame for many native speakers, who arrive at school to learn that the way everyone speaks is “wrong”, and an ossified written form is “right”. […]
Instead of a rigid right-wrong approach, with the written form always being taught as right, it would be better to teach the idea of register: that certain forms are used in casual speech, other forms in formal speech, others still in writing. Lingua Portuguesa also had an interview with Valéria Paz de Almeida, a linguist consultant to a news broadcaster, who lamented that newscasters feel the need to speak in an artificial register that resembles writing. They come to her with worried questions about rare and tricky grammatical forms. She in turn tries to get them to speak as they do with the cameras switched off: fluently and articulately, but naturally. She finds this make the journalists looser and happier, and the audience never complains.
What about foreign learners? It is distressing to show up in Paris and hear a mysterious mumble that sounds like j’sépa, over and over again, only later to discover that this is what your French teacher told you to say as je ne sais pas, “I don’t know.” Those silent s’s are a perfect example of the spoken language changing while the written remains the same. And a good textbook would explain that the negative particle ne is usually dropped in colloquial speech. But most books don’t trust learners to be able to master multiple registers. Mastering register is, to be sure, tricky. But it is not well solved by teaching only a register that will leave the learner bewildered by the first live contact with a human being.
He commends Routledge’s “Modern Grammar: A Practical Guide” series for doing it right, with “detailed, detached descriptions of the difference between speaking and writing, formal and informal, regional differences and the like.” I agree with him that that should be standard in language teaching.