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A Brief Overview of Language
by Reid Wilson
first appeared: Language Learning #3
What is a "language?" In a simple sense--excuse me if you have
a Ph.D. in linguistics and would prefer that I elaborate--a language is a
tool which two "things" use in order to communicate with each
other. Usually these "things" are people, but in some limited
sense a person can use language to communicate with his dog or his computer,
too. However, human-to-human language is unique in that it can be creatively
recombined in an infinite number of ways to express an infinite number of
thoughts. And of course in communication more than two people can be
involved, but for know let's be simple and discuss two friends politely
talking to each other.
At any moment, one person is speaking and the other is listening. The
speaker has some idea in his head that he wants to convey to the other
person. He subconsciously converts this idea into a message that he trusts
will be understood by his friend; in linguistics this process is called
"encoding." He "transmits" this message to his friend,
who receives it and is hopefully able to convert it back into the idea that
his friend is wanting to convey, a process called "decoding."
Encoding occurs during speaking and writing and decoding occurs during
hearing and reading.
The message from speaker to hearer is actually composed of three parts,
the three primary components of language: the dictionary, the grammar, and
the sound system. The "dictionary," also called the
"lexicon," is the storehouse of words (lexemes) that a person has
in his head. Actually, it's more than just the words: also included is their
meanings, cultural uses, grammatical functions, etc. The word
"encyclopedia" could also be used. "Grammar" refers to
the order that the words come in (syntax), the ways that words are formed
from roots, prefixes, and suffixes (morphology), and even the way that
sentences and paragraphs are put together to form longer passages (discourse
analysis). And the sound system (phonology) of a language comprises the
physical representation and manifestation of words and sentences that travel
from the mouth of the speaker to the ear of the listener. (In writing and
reading, the sound system is often represented by some sort of alphabet.)
Two people who speak the same language have essentially the same
dictionary, grammar, and sound system in their head, enabling fairly smooth
encoding and decoding. To the extent that these components differ, say for
an English speaker from the southeastern United States and an English
speaker from New Zealand, communication will be more difficult and will
require more work on the part of the speaker and listener. Sometimes the
listener may have to ask for clarification, other times the speaker will
change his speech in order to be more understandable in the first place.
This extends as well to speakers of two different languages. If they
speak languages which are related to each other (i.e., in the same language
family) such as French and Spanish, then they share some common features in
their mental dictionaries, grammars, and sound systems, but not enough to
really communicate with each other. However, because of the similarity
between the languages, one can learn a language that is related to his own
much faster and easier than one can learn a truly "foreign" one.
For example, Korean and Arabic share almost nothing in terms of dictionary
and little in terms of grammar, and they have very different sound systems.
So a Korean learning Arabic faces much difficulty.
But all hope is not lost, however, because all languages have much in
common, things which linguists call language universals. For example, all
languages have ways of talking about when events occur, who is doing the
action, who is receiving the action, and so on. Linguists debate about
whether these universals are something that are innate to the human mind
(perhaps you've heard the name Chomsky) or whether they are a result of
humanity's common existence and experience in the world (e.g. T. Givon)--a
form of the nature vs. nurture debate--but either way these universals help
the language learning process. And anyone who has learned a first language
as a child has the biology to learn a second one either as a child or as an
adult, although increasing age decreases one's ability for complete fluency
in a new language.
This background begins to clarify what it means to learn another
language: to learn the dictionary, the grammar, and the sound system of the
language in order to be able to properly encode and decode messages. We'll
discuss this more next time, along with some standards of evaluation for
indicating how much of this learning has taken place.