Some Notes on Language...
University of North Florida
What is language?As North Americans living in the early 21st century, we have been educated about language from the time we entered school. But much of what we learn about language in schools belongs more to a folk model than to an analytic model of language. Here are several pervasive aspects of our folk model of language.
An analytic model of languageA language is a representational system composed of a set of oral (or, in the case of the hearing impaired, signed) symbols shared by the members of a social group, and a computational system (or grammar) for combining the symbols into phrases and sentences. People use language for internal representation (thinking) and for external representation (communicating). For linguists, the "grammar" of a language is what the native speakers of the language know about their language. Some of the things speakers of a language need to "know" in order to speak a language are:However, the knowledge native speakers have is mostly unconscious knowledge; they "know" how to say it, but they (usually) can’t tell you how or why they say it that way.
Language as both biology & cultureIt seems clear that language is a part of the human biological endowment. Perhaps the most compelling evidence for this can be found in the area of children's acquisition of language.
All normal human children, everywhere, acquire the language of their social setting at about the same pace and in the same way. They do so without formal training, and they do so in social and cultural contexts which differ in terms of what kinds of linguistic interactions are supposed to be appropriate between parents/caregivers and infants. These differences do not seem to affect the rate or quality of children's acquisition of language; in a sense, children acquire language in much the same way as they acquire the skill of walking. However, children who are isolated, for some reason, from all forms of linguistic interaction do not acquire language, and if they reach puberty without exposure to language they may never be able to acquire more than a very rudimentary linguistic ability.
By the time they are around 3-4 years of age, children have mastered some of the most complex and subtle rules of their language, rules which no teacher of language could ever teach them. Of course, they still have lots of vocabulary to learn, as well as some of the pragmatic rules of language use in different social situations, and they have to learn to read and write.
While the underlying shape of language is biological, any given language itself is a cultural artifact. The best way to illustrate this is to take the words for the domesticated animal which English speakers refer to as a dog. All languages have a word for this animal; no language has a word for "half-a-dog." This seems to result from a property of the human brain that guides our perception and representation of natural objects in the world, like dogs, which come to us in whole "packages" (other candidates might be rocks, trees, birds, and so on). At the same time, though, the words we find in different languages
are as different as dog (English); perro (Spanish); anu (Aymara); kelb (Arabic); sobaka (Russian). None of these words has a privileged connection to the animal itself. Each is an arbitrary but conventional answer to the problem of naming these familiar domesticated animals.
The nature of languageLanguage (not just any language, but all languages) share a number of characteristics or design features that help fill out the concept of just what language is. Here are a few of the most important…
Infinite use of finite media. Although languages are complex, they are not infinitely complex. The number of rules that anyone needs to "know" to create sentences in their language is relatively small, and the number of different kinds of sentences is quite small. Still, the number of sentences that can be produced by any speaker of a language is potentially infinite.
Multiple patterning. Language is patterned at a number of levels of organization: sounds are patterned into phonemes, phonemes into words, words into phrases, phrases into sentences, sentences into larger units of discourse. This is what makes the infinite use mentioned above possible.
Predication. All languages make it possible for their speakers to name something and then make some kind of assertion about whatever was named. In other words, all languages allow for sentences that contain a subject and a predicate. We’ll explore this further in the unit on syntax.
Learnability. A central fact about all known languages is that they are all learnable by human beings. All normal human children acquire the language of their social group, and many (perhaps most!) go on to acquire more than one.
Traditional transmission. While all humans appear to have a built-in, genetically provided capacity for language acquisition, the actual acquisition of language must take place in a social context. The social context determines whether the language acquired is English, Russian, or Inuit, etc.
Displacement. Unlike most animal vocalization systems, which require that a stimulus be physically present for the vocalization to take place, human language allows us to talk about things that are absent in either space or time, or both. Without this feature, humans would not be able to talk about dinosaurs, or Cleopatra. We can add that this feature also allows us to talk about things that never existed, such as Klingons. Without it, we could have neither history or fiction.
Openness. Also unlike other animals, which typically have a fixed set of vocalizations, humans can increase the number of expressions at their disposal by inventing words. This feature allows us to add new words to our vocabulary such as hard drive, internet, and gigabyte.
Language & dialectIn our folk model of language, dialects are usually considered to be incomplete, perhaps ungrammatical, certainly less desirable forms of a standard language. The standard language, in contrast, is seen as more developed, more of a true language. The standard language is the form insisted upon for writing, for use in formal situations, certainly for reading and writing in schools. People who do not know the standard language are sometimes viewed in the same way as deficient, incomplete, lacking in education.
The analytic model of language includes the notion of linguistic relativism, which suggests that there is no point in trying to rank languages on any kind of scale. All human languages that we have any direct information about appear to contain all the characteristics necessary for language. In this view, there is no qualitative difference between a language and a dialect; the reasons why a particular variety of speech gets labeled as a dialect instead of as a language must be sought elsewhere. In particular, the reasons are to be found in the political, social, and economic value placed on the speakers of the language variety in question. The people who wield political, economic, and social control speak the "language"; those who do not speak the "dialect."
The realization that languages and dialects are not qualitatively different, and that attitudes toward them really reflect social prejudices, has led some linguists to say that a language is "a dialect with an army and a navy." For linguists, then, what counts as a "language," as opposed to a "dialect," is socially and culturally negotiated; not determined by some objective linguistic truth. Sometimes the negotiation is spectacularly unsuccessful, as when the Oakland (California) school board attempted to declare African American Vernacular English (Ebonics) a "language." There was a great public outcry against this, but almost nobody understood the real reason: African Americans in the US do not have "an army and a navy"; therefore, they are not entitled to have a "language."
I tend to avoid the difficulty of the word dialect by using variety instead. It seems easier and less judgmental to speak of varieties of English such as British, Australian, North American, or West Indian. We can even talk about varieties of creole English, such as Jamaican, Trinadadian, Barbadian, Belizean, and so on. Or, we can go in the other direction, and discuss varieties of Romance such as Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian; varieties of Indo-European such as Germanic and Balto-Slavic; or even varieties of human language such as Indo-European, Austronesian, and so on. It all depends on what level of abstraction we are interested in.
Although from an analytic viewpoint they "know" a language as well as anyone, speakers of non-standard varieties of language are often assumed by the folk model to be language-deficient. In the Caribbean, this manifests itself especially when creole-speaking children get to school and come up against the standard language in an intense way for the first time. Teachers, who through no fault of their own very often have only minimal training, are aware only of the folk model for language. They assume that deviation from standard language forms is evidence for a lack of language, and that children "have no grammar." The analytic model of language tells us that all normal human children "have grammar" but that grammar is their own knowledge of their native language, not the rules written down in school books.
Last update: May 15, 2005
Copyright © Ronald Kephart, 2005
Unit 4: Task 1 The Study of Spoken Language
How many pieces must students listen to in their study of Spoken Language?
The task requires students to respond on a least two pieces to allow them to show their understanding of variations and changes. They may listen and respond on many more than two pieces.
Do students need to compare and contrast the two types of talk or is it acceptable to look at each separately as long as consideration is given to how the language used in each varies?
Students are required to discuss two different types of talk. As the task is requiring candidates to say why language varies they will need to discuss how one example varies from the other and why it varies due to e.g. audience, context, purpose, etc.
Is there a suggested duration for the talk the students listen to for their task?
No, there is no suggested time length for each stimulus. As they will be listening to and writing about two pieces, it needs to have enough content to allow them to write appropriately to access the top mark bands for the task.
Does this task require students to listen to and evaluate speeches?
This may be one approach to the task. The word talk however has been chosen to allow a broader range of stimuli to be used, such as dialogue, interviews, broadcasts.
Can we use speeches and dialogue from texts studied for English Literature?
You can use this as your stimulus as long as the focus is listening to the type of talk in a realised version of the text. This assessment is based on the students response to their listening to talk rather than reading a text.
Can you clarify what is meant by Evaluate the impact of language choices on your own and others use (Appendix 2: Task 1 p.28).
This means students should include a reflective comment on what they found effective in the types of talk they listened to and how they would use this in their own talk.
If on the other hand, they are using a recording of themselves as one of the pieces then they are going to be evaluating their own language choices as part of their comparison with other talk.
What notes or research material from the preparation phase can the students bring in to the Controlled Assessment?
Students can bring in a transcript of each piece of talk as an aide memoire. Having listened to and discussed the pieces in the preparation phase this is purely to allow them to refer to specific examples when developing their response. It can have some brief annotation e.g. single words at certain points describing the tone or pace. Detailed annotation, underlining or highlighting is not permitted. All materials brought it to the Controlled Assessment must be submitted with the piece for assessment.
Can candidates write about speeches they have been taught in class as long as they dont go in with an essay plan or any teacher led notes?
Yes. This is the way this task should be delivered. The planning and preparation phase allows students to listen to their stimulus materials, discuss them and analyse them. Following this teaching phase candidates will then individually write up their responses to the task under controlled conditions. During the write-up phase they are allowed to bring in a transcript of the talks but they are not allowed access to any notes and the use of writing frames/essay plans are not allowed.
It says in the Hodder textbook for the specification that students can listen to a speech read out by your teacher. Is this acceptable to do for the Spoken Language task?
Any source is acceptable for the type of talk; the key feature of this task is that the starting point is hearing the stimulus. Think of this task as the teaching of an aural text and deliver this the same way as the preparation and planning for any text. Sources of talk can come from podcasts, recordings, readings, presentations at school prize giving, broadcasts, realised versions of a text being studied, etc.
What is the focus of the Spoken Language task? Is it what makes the speeches motivational or is it a piece emphasising context, purpose and audience, and highlighting how these influence the language of the speaker?
The aim of the spoken language task is for the students to show their awareness of how the two types of talk vary and why. If they are looking at two motivational speeches it will be fine to discuss initially what techniques are used to make them motivationally successful. As the task requires evidence of the understanding of variations, candidates will need to be able to show why these different techniques were chosen in each instance e.g. because of different audiences, eras, purposes or any other reason for language choice.
How should students respond to the Spoken Language task? Should they respond to a new recording after looking at a few similar examples?
Students will produce a written response to their analysis of two types of talk. We would expect as with the study of literature task that candidates are writing under controlled conditions about recordings they have already listened to and analysed as part of their preparation.
Does body language have to be analysed when studying the sources of talk?
Body language is not a part of the study of spoken language. The focus of this task is the study of the spoken word in an aural stimulus ie why have these words been chosen, what impact is wanted on the hearer. The assessment criteria highlight the skills of analysis which may be exhibited in this study.
Does the study of Political talk mean politicians?
You can use any source of talk in which the speaker is making a statement about an aspect of society. This could be politicians speaking in parliament, giving interviews or making statements but it does not have to be.
Can hearing impaired candidates access the study of spoken language?