What is Language? – We are all insiders

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We are all insiders to language, so for many purposes, we have the right to take this term for granted. For instance, we all know English. Yet, English is not spoken the same way In Glasgow as it is in say Jamaica. There are no single forms of speech or writing for ‘English’ instead there are many ‘Englishes’.

““We must, in reality, distinguish as many languages as there are individuals” (Hermann Paul, 1880).

Linguists are often asked just how many languages there are. The answer they give tends to centre on around 5000 to 6000. Definitions of languages can vary from one country to another.

“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy” (Max Wenreich, 1945).

It is best not to worry too much about what we call things; both dialect and language are terms applied to ways of speaking we perceive as different. So, in reality, how many languages are there?

In conclusion, everyone speaks a language in a different way. It could be argued that every human being on earth has their own language, but the differences are small so communication is still possible. Language, therefore, is the general structure of words and sounds that are commonly understood by speakers of the language.

Language Morphs – transfer and language change

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As the echoes of ‘Gladly the Cross I’d Bear’ reverberate around the church, there sits a little girl with a questionable face thinking who is ‘Gladly’ and why sing about the unfortunate bear being cross-eyed.  

So, here lies transfer and language change. For example, ‘nickname’ started off as ekename; eke being ‘also’. Through time and the use of ‘an ekename’ people began to interpret the n in an as the first letter; hence a nickname. Even Santa Claus began life differently as a Dutch word Sant Heer Niclaes. St Nicholas was shortened to Santerclaes and reinterpreted. English is full of words that are not descended in ‘pure’ state from older equivalents.  So, be careful when you tell people to ‘Shaddap’ or ‘Caditout’.     Reference: The Power of Babel by John McWhorter

I did not mean it like that! Language at its best (or worst).

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Language works in many ways and what someone says may well not truly get to the core of their true meaning or the point they were trying to get across while at the same time the receiver is stumped or takes offense. In the piece of writing, I will try to explain that the English language has many meanings, descriptions, and stumblings that we wonder how someone was actually trying to make their point and did they (or others)really know what they were saying.

In a famous Bertrand Russell’s sentence construction, we can see that we do not hold consistent opinions on facts. On a BBC program in the 1940s, Russell conjugated an “irregular verb” as “I am firm; you are obstinate; he is a pig-headed fool.” These constructions provide excellent illustrations of the varying emotional associations of words and the empathy of meaning.

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What Russell was illustrating was the power of words to convey attitudes (connotations) as well as meanings (denotations).

Moreover, think about the following statements and how they convey their meanings: I am sexually adventurous, you are promiscuous, he is a slut.

We recognise connotation as ‘the emotional implications and associations that a word may carry’ and denotation as ‘the direct or dictionary meaning of a word’.

Dog = man’s best friend (connotation)

Dog = four legged animal (denotation)

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Classroom-Based Research Project Aspects of Language Acquisition

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For this project, I have focused my inquiry on the way students acquire language. The question that I would like answered is: How do students acquire language in the classroom environment and what best techniques fit their style of learning? This includes styles that I think do/did not fit in the classroom environment and could actually hamper students’ learning and their acquisition of a language. The classroom data that I used for this essay comes from the teacher (me) and the students that I was teaching. To add to this data in the inquiry, I also observed another teacher, who for one period taught the same class of students. For this essay, I wanted to work out, through analysis, how certain commands such as asking the students to do tasks, either work or not. A few subset questions came to mind such as: how do the teacher’s concise instructions alter students’ concentration or understanding in the acquisition of their language? In what way does the lesson move ahead through controlled teaching? What gives students that drive to a better understanding? I would like, through analysis, to delve deeper into the teaching methods and come to realize for myself, that much more, how the students’ minds work. This better understanding means that my methods of teaching, hopefully, make those students speak more fluently, without hesitation, or worry about their mistakes and aids their learning. I have, through this essay, tried to equally use my thoughts as well as the students. I hope that this essay gives a clearer picture for the reader, as well as myself, on helping students acquire language.

I would just like to add that, apart from studying/researching the class, the most intriguing and challenging part of this classroom research for me, was the research that occurred in the privacy of the staff room. There was a lot of material to be sifted through and connections to be made. This made me make sure that the students provided me with the best possible information untainted by fears of evaluation and embarrassment. I had to analyze the information I received: “How were they thinking about this subject? Why? What shall I do next?” Classroom research for me was intellectually very demanding and at times, quite perplexing. Also, I had to take criticism from some of the tasks that maybe didn’t work in class. The advantages for me as a teacher of using self-evaluation for this research are hugely beneficial for my deeper understanding of the students’ acquisition of language. The scrutinizing of a teacher’s instructions and seeing their students’ reaction to extra instruction, where it is realized that the students don’t get the meaning, is enlightening in respect to the analysis of the teacher’s methods.  A teacher can often see their mistakes with a bit more thought. I found that it made me think more about my techniques.

I also think for many reasons my students benefited immensely from my research. Firstly in the act of self-assessment, I think the students developed some knowledge/abilities to see themselves more clearly as learners in relation to their course objectives. Secondly, students who were in small group discussions got to compare and contrast their experiences with others and through large group discussion they developed a sense of the whole class learning and where it’s moving. Thirdly, I not only got insights into how this group of students were doing, but it also opened up channels of collaboration for me to work with individual students on their progress in the course. I think for the students, in hearing what their peers thought, students were able to overcome the isolated, individual student/teacher relationship. They could see themselves as part of a group (including myself) that was marked not by competition, but by solidarity in a common enterprise of understanding and using the subject matter with competence and confidence. For me, I think the students were not used to evaluating their learning or the teacher’s teaching, so it was an enlightening experience, I think for us both. And a process I will continue with the same students as I feel we have a better understanding, now.

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Language and the Brain

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“What part of the brain controls language?” The answer is that we do not know how, let alone exactly where, we decide what mix of words to use in order to convey a message. The systems studied by linguists are theoretical, formed from our conscious understandings. Any study by a linguist regarding the functioning of the human brain is, therefore, theoretical.

Language is typically controlled on the left side of the brain. Thinking of the brain in terms of sides, it is known in the medical sciences that the right side of the brain controls functions of the left side of the body, and the left side of the brain controls the functioning of the right side of the body. As speech and language are concerned, most people are right-hand dominant, and the language “center” of these people is on the left. Brain tumors and head injuries are a common occurrence. A person’s speech is often impacted in such events, particularly when the damage is on the left side of the brain.

There is an interesting medical case that happened in Norway during the 1940s. A woman, Astrid L., was in an accident, as the result of an air raid, and she suffered a serious injury on the left side of her brain. In the hospital, she regained consciousness but was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. In time, she recovered to the extent that she could walk on her own and speak fluently; her speech, however, was marked by the absence of “the natural Norwegian accent”.

Most theories are contrived by studying patients like Astrid L. Many of these studies compare the human brain to the electrical system in a building. For example, if a fuse blows and a classroom full of students goes dark, the system can be re-wired to provide electricity to where it is needed. Another interesting observation is that people who are right-handed have been able to learn to write with their left hand. This involves not just the muscles but using your brain as well.

While it is known that speech is controlled on the left side of the brain (for the majority of people), it is not known specifically where on the left side. Indeed, we should be careful not to jump to conclusions about something we have not designed and do not understand. The truth is that we do not know what is physically happening in the brain when it comes to an experience such as understanding a language.