What is language? Folklinguistic theories

Last week, I described the nation state ideology of language, and its implications for language teaching.  This week, I’m discussing folklinguistic theories of language, and their implications for language learning and teaching.  Generally, “folklinguistic” theories, or the general population’s beliefs about language, are contrasted with “linguistic” theories developed via the scientific study of language, or linguists beliefs about language.  Frequently, these are in conflict.  There are, of course, multiple linguistic theories, indicating that linguists don’t necessarily agree on what language  is either, and I’ll discuss some of those as they relate to learning and teaching languages in upcoming posts.  However, for the moment I’ll focus on folk linguistic beliefs I come across in the field of language teaching that to the best of my knowledge are not supported by scientific theories of language.  


1) We learn words, then we learn grammar, then we can put them together to talk/read/listen/write. This seems to be the way a lot of textbooks in particular are set up, with a vocabulary list, then some grammar description and exercises, then some reading or listening texts or speaking or writing activities, and probably a culture blurb thrown in somewhere.  So in a sense, if language learning is viewed as doing well in class with this type of textbook, it does make sense to take this approach.  The issue is that this approach doesn’t transfer well to language learning outside of this particular textbook/classroom context, and this conflicts with the belief of most teachers (I think) that they are preparing students to eventually do things outside of the classroom.  The basic problem is the lack of context—words, and words in grammatical sentences or phrases are always connected to something larger in the real world, and this is how linguistic theories would argue that we learn them.  


2) I taught these words in chapter two but the students don’t remember them, so we must need more vocabulary quizzes/activities. Related to the above, “chapter two” is not a meaningful context for vocabulary acquisition, although it could arguably gain some meaning in a classroom where there is a “chapter two unit” or “chapter two test”.  However, remembering that a word was in a list in this chapter isn’t that likely to transfer to other meaningful contexts, like the writing assignment in chapter six.  


3) We learned the past tense a year ago, but students are still making mistakes, so we need more grammar activities. Variations on this are things I hear A LOT.  Essentially, I think this comes down to a belief that learning how to describe a grammatical feature should be sufficient for using it in the future.  However, describing grammatical features, by for example filling out a chart of verb conjugations, is really more of a skill relevant to linguistics than actually using these features to do things with language, especially when it happens quickly.  Although linguistic theories differ in their views of what it takes to acquire grammatical features in a way that they can be used spontaneously in speech, they seem to be united in the fact that it takes a lot of exposure to these features and a lot of time.  One way I see this play out with the past tense in my classroom is that students seem to acquire the first person “ana” past tense form a lot more quickly than they do the other forms: probably because they are always talking about themselves, and most of the beginning videos in our textbook are characters talking about themselves! To remedy this (we’re working on it!) we need more videos and activities that aren’t just talking about oneself.  


4) It’s best to start with a neutral, standard variety because too much variation will confuse students.  In Arabic, this is a never-ending argument, but of course all languages have what linguistics call sociolinguistic variation, or ways that people use linguistic elements to make social meaning, such as creating the formality of a situation, or indexing belong to a particular social group.  Here, the problem is that the social meaning of this “neutral, standard” variety is rarely addressed.  As I explained last week, it generally stems from the origin of the nation state, and was viewed as key to making speakers of other varieties come together into one nation.  It also typically represents the language of the most powerful social group in a society, and marking the linguistic choices of this social group as “standard” or “correct” and the linguistic choices of other social groups as “non-standard” or “incorrect” allows for discrimination theoretically based on language that is in fact based on social categories such as race or class.  There is also the case of diglossic languages like Arabic, where the “standard” variety is rarely used in many of the everyday situations targeted in beginning languages.  So, yes, it would be overwhelming to teach every variant documented in a language, but this does not absolve us from addressing the social meaning of the variants we teach.  In terms of confusion, we don’t avoid teaching verb conjugations and other grammatical features (which as per point three above can certainly be confusing!) so student confusion should not be an excuse for avoiding teaching the social meanings of language.  While I admit that I haven’t figured out a fully satisfactory way to do this yet, my hope in the end is that if we become aware of the social meanings of language in those we learn, we can also become more aware of them in our own, and do our part to end pervasive linguistic discrimination.


There are certainly more folklinguistic theories of language that effect the way we learn and teach language, but these four are some of the ones I commonly hear from students, teachers, and people that learn I teach Arabic.  In the upcoming weeks, I’ll delve into what to types of linguistic theories, formal and functional, tell us about language and the implications of that for learning and teaching languages.