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.

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.

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.

Homo loquens

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Homo sapiens describes a species capable of thought, while homo loquens is used to describe a species capable of speech. Only humans are capable of communication through speech. Calls made by animals represent a very limited form of speech. Animals are also capable of making facial expressions, hand movements, and have a sense of touch, just as we humans do. However, we differ from other animals because of language. The basis of the chimpanzee society is grooming, cleaning each other. Human society is based in speech. The development of vocal communication in human beings has been very rapid, dating as far back as five to eight million years ago.

Language is primarily vocal, although it is also written. Even today, many people are illiterate. Speech is often closely related to other non-verbal behavior. While speaking, body language plays an important role as well. Non-verbal communications, gestures, have a language of their own. Gestures that may be acceptable in some cultures may be offensive in others. 

Tone of voice is also important. Most of us can relate to the anecdote of the mother calling her child. When the mother first calls for the child, her voice is normal. Yet as the child continues to play, the mother’s tone of voice will change, typically pronouncing every syllable of the child’s name.

Language has two different layers. Smaller units, letters, are themselves meaningless. Letters can be combined to form something meaningful, a word. For example, the letters s, t, o, and p form the word stop. This system is unique to human languages.

A feature of the English language is stress. By shifting stress, “wind” easily becomes “wind”.

Another feature is called redundancy, and an advantage of it is that speech is seldom misheard.

Language is not in our genes. A person who grows up speaking Spanish probably learned Spanish as a child. If a baby born in Peru were to be adopted and moved to Thailand, the baby would grow up speaking Thai. According to Noam Chomsky, the “God Father of Linguistics”, some of our language skills are genetically inherited.

Language first appeared in modern man 100,000 years ago and it is thought to have spread worldwide.

Linguists focus on the structure of current languages, and they focus less on how languages came into existence. However, linguistic evolution: “it is a good way to appreciate what has made our species so remarkable”.