Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Structure of Language

By Peter McKenzie-Brown
To understand the importance of Communicative Language Teaching, let’s first investigate the complexity of language itself.

Simply put, language is one of the wonders of the world. As a well-known linguist puts it, language “enables us to shape ideas in each other’s brains with exquisite precision….Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new ideas to arise in each other’s minds.” Not only do we use language for such basics as food, shelter, clothing and romance. We also use it to meet higher needs through social organization and literature, for example, and for prayer and meditation. Language is the basis of daily life, culture, religion, commerce, science and civilization. It is impossible to underestimate its importance.

A Language Puzzle: It is impossible to fully grasp the flexibility of language, but here is another hint from linguist Steven Pinker. In his book Words and Rules, Pinker poses a thought-game to illustrate the almost incomprehensible scope of language.

Imagine a language consisting only of determiners (four in number: “a/an, one, any, the”) plus 10,000 nouns and 4,000 verbs. Let’s assume also that with these relatively few words you can only create sentences of the following type: “Determiner+noun+verb+determiner+noun” (DNVDN). Here is an example of this kind of sentence: “The book is a novel”. No real language is so limited in vocabulary and structure. Yet with these words and this structure you could theoretically make 6.4 trillion sentences. At five seconds each, it would take you one million years to say them all.

Such a simple language structure as DNVDN can have enough uses to take up many lifetimes. But here is the interesting part: There is no limit to the number of structures we can create with language. We can make any sentence longer, more complex or differently nuanced.

Manufacturing Words: The largest English dictionaries define no more than half a million words. In reality, however, the number of words in the language is also infinite.

To demonstrate, consider words known as quantifiers, which grammarians describe as one of the classes of words known by the more general name "determiners," a part of speech. Quantifiers are words like “few” and “many,” which let us express the quantity of an item we have. Like the words “much” and “several”, cardinal numbers like “one” and “10,001” are also quantifiers. So while the number of words in a dictionary is limited, the number of quantifiers is not.

The same applies to ordinal numbers like first and 99th. Grammatically, we usually use them as adjectives. Like quantifiers, they are infinite in number.

We do the same with other parts of speech – for example, there is really no limit to the number of possible nouns, which describe things, places and people. Perhaps the people of today's world use nearly a billion personal names, like Bryce, Mun and Anusorn, to identify themselves. We could easily use any one of those almost countless names in an English sentence.

It is just as easy to make up verbs. We might say, for example, that a composer “out-Bached Bach.” In that case, we would likely also use the German /ch/ sound, which does not ordinarily exist in Standard English.
We also have an amazing ability to make words bigger, and to nuance their meanings. We can manipulate English almost endlessly by adding prefixes and suffixes to the large stock of roots and stems in English. Here are some definitions:
1. Affixes are grammatical units – usually prefixes or suffixes – that never occur by themselves. They are always attached to a word root or a word stem: preview, for example, and presentation.
2. A stem is the main portion of a word. When appropriate, we stick prefixes and suffixes to it: breakable, enslave, walks.
3. A root is the basic sound in a word or family of related words. It consists of an irreducible pairing between sound and meaning. For example, electricity, electric, electrical, electrify, electron.
Through these grammatical rules (and others), we can turn nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs into each other. Take the noun “ticket,” chosen at random. We can “ticket” a car, turning the noun into a verb. We can call a driver who has often been ticketed “ticket-tacky,” thereby creating an adjective. (Perhaps we mean he frames his speeding tickets and hangs them in his office.) Moving on, we can conclude that he deals with his driving offenses “ticket-tackily,” thereby creating an adverb. All of these possibilities flawlessly follow the rules of English. The possibilities are – quite literally – endless.

The Role of Interlanguage: As this scan of the fabric of language suggests, it is virtually impossible to teach nuanced language to your learners through traditional “direct” methods – grammar drills and so on. Students with aptitude and motivation do learn foreign languages, however. How does this occur?

Modern language theory says it occurs through the growth of interlanguage. Roughly, interlanguage is a word we use for the learner’s growing knowledge of a second language. Interlanguages may have “characteristics of the learner’s first language, characteristics of the second language, and some characteristics which seem to be very general and tend to occur in all or most interlanguage systems. Interlanguages are systematic, but they are also dynamic.” Interlanguages continually evolve “as learners receive more input and revise their hypotheses about” – their understanding of – “the second language.”

…And the Role of CLT: And that is why Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is so important. You can’t drip-feed the infinite possibilities of language into your students’ ears. Instead, you need to give them communicative activities through which they can begin to intuit the uses of language. You must play a different role than did the teacher in the traditional language learning classroom – especially the teacher who taught through grammar translation.

In the traditional classroom, the teacher is in charge. He controls the learning – an approach which creates a sense of burden sometimes described as the Atlas Complex. CLT relieves Atlas of his burden.

In CLT you serve as a facilitator. You empower students to be in charge of their own learning. As a communicative language teacher, you set up exercises and give direction to the class, but the students do much more speaking than in the traditional classroom. You enable them to practice real-life situations – for example, buying food at the market or asking someone for directions or telling the time. In this way, they learn to use the language for communication. And as they receive comprehensible input, they acquire interlanguage. The entire process is a virtuous cycle – a positive process that keeps building on itself.

As the examples at the beginning of this discussion illustrate, languages are simply too complex to try to explain to anyone who doesn’t want to make their study a life-long occupation. What makes much more sense is to enable your students to communicate. As you do, their confidence in the new language will grow. As importantly, they will winkle out the secrets of how the new language works.
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