A Brief Overview of Language by Reid Wilson

posted Jul 6, 2011, 11:38 AM by Essia Bernstein   [ updated Jan 7, 2012, 7:51 PM ]
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.