Interview with Peter Harvey

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Peter Harvey
Peter Harvey

Please meet Peter Harvey, EFL teacher, author and translator.

Please introduce yourself and provide some background information.

I am a qualified UK secondary-school teacher specialising in EFL, but I have never taught in the UK. After teaching English in Germany, Zambia and Saudi Arabia I came to live in Barcelona, Spain, in 1984. Now I teach adults on a freelance basis, translate and write books about English. I studied modern languages at Cambridge and I find that having studied languages formally gives me an insight into the psychological processes that my own students are undergoing.

What inspired you to starting writing your blog, “Lavengro?

First, let me explain the name. Lavengro is the title of a strange book written by George Borrow. It tells of his youth in the early nineteenth century, when he befriended some gypsies and learned their language. As a result he was called Lavengro, which means “word-master” in the Romany tongue. I read this book when I was young and was greatly impressed by it.
I started writing my blog as a way of publishing to the world what I was telling my students and of publishing my own thoughts and views about language for anyone who might be interested in reading them. It seems that a good number of people are.

What is it about “Lavengro” that has made it such a successful blog?

I think it is the fact that it is both reliable and readable. As in my teaching and in my books I seek to give an impression that what I am saying is completely trustworthy. This requires a lot of research but it is worthwhile. The most popular post by far is the one about the variant spellings sulphur and sulfur. Apart from serious langue comments I present a number of light-hearted posts too to lighten the mix.

How has blogging changed language? How we use language?

I’m not sure that blogging itself has changed language very much but it has made many people aware that their language is in public view. For that reason some people are taking more care about their use of language, which is always good. The other side of the coin to this is the rise of pedantry; there is far too much on the internet about the Oxford comma (I have a post about the Cambridge comma) and there are far too many people who are proud of publicly and snobbishly judging others. This can make it hard to get to the real issues of language.

What is so interesting about language/grammar to you?

I have been fascinated by language since I was a child. Humpty Dumpty’s comment: ‘When I use a word, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less. The question is which is to be master — that’s all.’ made an early impression but I was encouraged later at school, where I studied French, German, Spanish and Russian. Anthony Burgess’s book Language Made Plain fired my teenage enthusiasm for language and languages.
I see language primarily as a means of communication. It is the primary means by which people interact with each other and the ability to communicate in different languages is essential. It is obvious, I hope, that interpersonal communication should be clear and efficient and that an understanding of grammar can help to achieve that. My interest is practical more than theoretical. I study grammar so that I can teach it and explain it in my books as efficiently and accessibly as possible.

You are an English language teacher. What, in your opinion, is the most essential or central aspect of the English language that you teach your students?

The ability to communicate effectively in different circumstances and about different topics. That is not to ignore grammar – far from it! Without a proper understanding of how a language works, and of what is and is not acceptable in modern standard English, nobody can hope to become an efficient user of the language. But as far as possible I present language in situations that are relevant to the students’ needs, reacting immediately to particular language problems as they arise and correcting them. There is a certain contradiction here. I am by nature a descriptivist, as are almost all linguists nowadays. But my students quite reasonably want to have explanations in terms of what is right and wrong, and when they are facing situations that require such a binary division it is not helpful to say that ‘should of’ and ‘publically’ are often found, that many people use them, and that they are unambiguous. Students just want to know that they are not acceptable in exams, applications to British universities, or reports for senior management.

What do you think is your unique contribution to the English language?

This must be my books. Having found that my explanations of language-related issues, including vocabulary and cultural matters as well as grammar, were popular with my students I decided to put it all on paper. I now have three titles published by Lavengro Books: A Guide to English Language Usage is a comprehensive 422-page usage guide for non-native speakers of English, which one reviewer has kindly compared to Fowler’s Modern English Usage. It is complemented by the much smaller Pearls of the English Language, which provides simple, short explanations of basic matters. My third book is Great English Mistakes, which explains and corrects the typical mistakes made by Spanish speakers and also has a few typical Catalan mistakes.

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment in the world of language/grammar?

To have shown my students that language is not just another subject that has to be studied. The value of having English as a foreign or second language hardly needs stating of course, but that knowledge is not always easy to acquire. Learning can be made more pleasant by giving proper background explanations and guides instead of presenting students with bald rules on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. In this regard my greatest accomplishment is one that never ceases to surprise me. I explain to my students how single and double consonants are related to pronunciation – a double consonant protects a short vowel from the lengthening effect of a vowel that follows a single consonant. Text books seem to avoid this and I have never met a student who had heard of the rule, maybe because it is thought to be too complicated to teach. But students can certainly be bright enough to understand it and when they do, they find that a huge number of problems disappear because they don’t have to remember by rote that ‘writing’ has one ‘t’ and ‘written’ has ‘tt’ for example.

Why should anyone be more interested in linguistics/grammar?

Grammar is the underlying structure of language. Language is the basis of communication so a knowledge of grammar can help communication. Not everyone will or can become an expert linguist or grammarian but everyone should be exposed to such a person as a language teacher to help them express themselves as efficiently as possible.

If you could change the way people speak or write what would you suggest? Why does it matter?

In speaking I would say that people should speak as clearly as possible. Clear pronunciation and logical presentation are more important than a perfect accent, whether we are talking of a learner’s foreign accent or a native speaker’s regional accent.
In writing people should think of who will read their words. With the internet it is far too easy to fire off an email, or a chat message, or a Facebook comment without considering what effect the choice of language will have on the person who will read it.

What are the three most critical errors made most often?

To write or speak without first using the brain. A quick glance at the internet is enough to show the importance of this!
Not to revise written work properly. Anyone can make a typo or produce an unfortunate sentence but to let it get into print or onto an exam paper is a very serious matter.
To use complex language when simplicity will do the job.