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.

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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How Young Learners Learn Languages – True or False

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For this writing task, I was asked to give my response to 5 statements about how young learners learn languages. I will answer true or false statements 1- 5 and explain why.

1) Babies are unable to respond until they are at least 6 months old.

Is this True or False?

2) Babbling has an element of the meaning of which the young child is aware.

Is this True or False?

3) Children may sometimes use words in a way different from an adult’s understanding of the language item.

Is this True or False?

4) Grammar rules cannot usually be taught to young children.

Is this True or False?

5) Repetition plays an important part in first language acquisition.

Is this True or False?

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The Study of Language

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Linguistics is the study of languages and therefore should be studied objectively. A slight contradiction, however, is that as humans, we are studying an aspect of ourselves with no other way of talking about the language other than through the language itself and therefore may be prone to make subjective assumptions that an outsider may not.

Many species communicate through sound. Although there is no evidence with things such as animals, we can assume that pauses and tones in sounds lend themselves to forming complex phrases. This is also made easier by visual stimuli whereby we are able to correlate repeated signals in accordance with specific actions. For example, the scream of a child or a hiss of a snake is only heard in specific situations that can often be interpreted as dangerous or painful. Thus by observing certain sounds in different situations, we can gain clues as to their meaning.

Being humans we have an advantage in that we are able to distinguish between what a natural body function like sneezing is compared with spoken language. We know that language is made up of units of words. However, it is important to note that we cannot take a word in our own language and assume that it has exactly the same meaning in another. For instance,  the word ‘Shima’ taken from the Navajo language, while this word translates as ‘mother’, it has a far broader meaning that lends itself more towards ‘a giver of life’ and as such many things fall under the term ‘mother’ such as earth and trees.

Another important issue to bear in mind particularly within the English language is that of the written word contrasted with the spoken word.  Written words often do not correspond with their phonetic pronunciation. Therefore it became necessary to create a system to help overcome this. This system is now commonly used with many languages and is known as IPA or the International Phonetic Alphabet. This system allows us to know the phonetic spelling of a word. It is a rather scientific approach in trying to develop an insight into a language and almost ironic that we have to develop another language to try and understand or explain our own language.

Linguistics makes advances into many areas of study such as sociology, anthropology, and even philosophy. While many argue that it is a subject of the humanities, the approach needed to study it is systematic and scientific by nature and thus generally considered a scientific study.

Language – In Time And Space

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A look at how the English language is constantly evolving. Words used, and the meaning of those words change over time. For example, in the 1940s a “wireless” was the word used to describe what we now call a “radio.” Today, “wireless” has taken on a totally new meaning, associated with “wireless headphones”, “wireless internet” etc..

Variation is a term used to explain the process whereby two native English speakers can understand each other but may not speak exactly the same i.e. Scottish, Australian etc. Variation is the product of change. Populations with common languages separated over time, the forms of speech changed independently and thus the languages separated. This variation is seen in the form of different dialects and accents.

There have been many studies relating to the variation of detail within the English language. An easy variation to identify  is that between English dialects when pronouncing words that end in “er.” From the 19th century onwards, local dialects in Northern England began to drop the “er” and replace it with an “a” sound. For example, “butter” became “butta” , “shiver” became “shiva” etc. This variation was also carried into forms of English that developed in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Studies have also illustrated that social status can determine language variation. Speakers with a higher social status and education are more likely to pronounce words in their full and proper form. Studied in the field of Sociolinguistics.

Another theory of language variation looks at the separation of human populations across the globe. Language (as a form of communication) is a naturally inherited characteristic of the human species. Particular forms of language are aspects of specific human societies. As these societies drifted apart over time, languages developed independently of each other. Studied in the field of cultural linguistics.

The mastery of speech develops in early childhood. Language structure is fixed before the teens. Other theories look at language change being consistent with societal changes. There is also the theory that language changes from one generation to the next, and the speech mastered is determined by that spoken in communities in which children grow up.