For the last thirty or forty years, teachers in English and American schools have been putting up a great fight against the old forms of 'Grammar' -- against the learning of rules based on the structure of dead languages. By protesting against a book-knowledge with little or no relation to the needs and interests of present-day society, they have certainly taken a step in the right directions.
There was, however, an idea at the back of the old rules: the idea that because our thought is based on language, and because it is important for our thought to be clear, a great respect for form might be a help in the development of our minds. A good language is a machine for thought, and the delicate adjustment of words to changes of thought and shades of feeling is certainly dependent in some measure on attention to the parts and structure of the machine. But, by degrees, the machine became the manager of the man, and the cry went up for the right to be free from the dead weight of machine-made rules.
So far so good; and more power to the supporters of brighter school books talking the language of the market place. But there is a great danger of turning out a mass of automatic talking-machines in a desire to get the 'right' reactions to the sort of questions now common in school tests. The selection and learning by heart of words and word- completes, for no other reason than that they are the most frequent, is a new form of the old idea of basing language teaching on the structure of the machine. If the learner is made conscious of his instrument, not only will his power of thought be increased, but much memory-work will become unnecessary.
Education, for Basic, is the expansion of experience by experts. Even in the earliest stages of reading an important part may be taken by the Basic framework. The natural development of the material is from simple pointing, at the level of a sign-language, to the more complex needs f normal talk; and for this propose stories about the doings of some improbable Landru from the Never-Never-Land are clearly out of place. In addition, the use of Basic is an insurance that the words most necessary to the structure will be worked in frequently enough for the learner to get them completely under control. Most simple word lists for early reading and writing are not truly limited, but are increased, without system, at the pleasure of whoever is responsible for the teaching- material.
For those to whom it is only a first step, the expansion of Basic into normal English may be viewed as a natural growth; so that the learner goes from level to level as he would up this or that branch of a tree -- and not from words to more words for no better reason than that some of the later words are less frequently used by writers of school books.
'Expansions' are made clear from root uses, and 'idioms' from the more regular and straightforward forms of the language. In the same way the senses of new words outside the Basic range will be put before the learner with the help of the 850, so that even the most complex ideas of science may come before the mind as parts of a shorthand system and not as fictions to be given substance in some structure of air.
The small word-list of Basic has a special value at all stages of word-learning. The list is representative of every sort of word, and gives us all the material necessary for a more detailed knowledge of the behavior of languages of unlimited range. It is a sort of instrument for testing the use of words in newspapers and the effects desired in verse. When we put a language such as Spanish or Russian into English there is a danger of going only from words to words, with the least possible adjustment. In Basic it is necessary to keep in mind all the time what is being said, so that we are never exchanging one fixed form for another at the same level.
This process is frequently a great help to those whose word-reactions are slow, and who may have a clear idea of the simple sense without the power of quickly pushing the right buttons on the delicate language-machine. And a the same time Basic will make teachers less surprised that those who seem when young to have the best minds so frequently do not come up to their hopes under conditions where words have to take second place.
To put the argument shortly, Basic at last gives us a chance of getting free from the strange power which words have had over us from the earliest times; a chance of getting clear about the processes by which our ideas become fixed forms of behavior before we ourselves are conscious of what history and society are making us say.
The words which give us this chance may themselves become a help to thought, and through Basic even the very young may be trained to a sense of true values; in fact, those with no education are frequently quicker in their reactions than persons who have been through the school-machine. In England and America, that machine is badly in need of attention today, and through Basic the teacher may give, and be given, a truer view of the relation between thought and feelings on the one hand and words and things on the other. It is wise to let experience be the only judge of the value of such suggestions; but if the attempt is not made, there will be no experience on which decisions may be based. In most countries the decision is being taken for international reasons; and everywhere science and commonsense are working together for the development of an island language from which journeys may be taken with profit into that mist of words of whose dangers education is at least becoming conscious.