Cognitive Approaches

Knowledge of language

1. What does it mean to know a language?

If we want to answer this question, we should probably start off asking ourselves: what is language for? Why do we have it, why do we need it?

First of all, language allows a quick and effective expression of what we think and provides a well-developed means of encoding and transmitting complex and subtle ideas. In other words, language has a symbolic function, allowing us to externalise our thoughts by using certain symbols, and an interactive function, enabling us to get things across, and also, to make things happen (e.g. pronouncing a couple married).
Symbols, according to Langacker, consist of forms (sounds, orthographic representations, or a gesture as in sign language ) paired with meanings (the semantic content associated with the symbol) and he terms this form-meaning pairing a symbolic assembly.

In CL, the meaning associated with a linguistic symbol is said to be linked to a particular mental representation termed a concept. Concepts, in turn, derive from percepts (covering the range of perceptual information – smell, shape, colour….), which are integrated into a single mental image. The meanings encoded by linguistic symbols refer to our projected reality: a mental representation of reality, as constructed by the human mind, mediated by our perceptual and conceptual systems. Our conceptualizations are seemingly unlimited in scope. Therefore, language represents a limited system for the expression of thought.
From a cognitive linguistic point of view, knowing language therefore means much more than knowing words and how they can be combined. Instead, it means knowing how form and meaning is combined to form symbolic assemblies and of course, knowing how to use these to make communication possible.

2. Language in use

Speaking about language in use we will naturally move into the direction of pragmatics. In detail, we will speak about concrete spoken language or in other words: utterances. First of all, I would like to work out a definition of "utterance". Consider the following two definitions:

  • [An utterance is] a particular, actual occurrence of the product of human behaviour in communicative interaction (i.e., a string of sounds), as it is pronounced, grammatically structured, and semantically and pragmatically interpreted in its context. (Croft 2001)

  • An utterance is a linguistic act in which one person expresses towards another, within a single intonation contour, a relatively coherent communicative intention in a communicative context. (Tomasello 2000)

These statements indicate that an utterance is a phenomenon of linguistic behaviour on the part of a language user. This language user is a member of a particular linguistic community and attempts to achieve a particular interactional goal using particular linguistic and non-linguistic strategies in his speech (illicit information, provide information, etc.)
As can be seen especially in Tomasello’s definition, an utterance or a usage event can be somewhat seen as a unit, expressed with a single intonation contour as a coherent idea. *
Utterances typically occur spontaneously and often do not conform to the grammaticality requirements of a well-formed sentence. They may consist of a single word: (Hi!), a phrase: (no way!), an incomplete sentence: (Did you put the…) or a sentence that contains errors because the speaker is tired, distracted and so on.
* Of course, an utterance is not an absolutely discrete or precisely identifiable unit, since properties such as word order, intonation, speech tempo etc. may vary from utterance to utterance. They do not co-occur in fixed patterns and therefore do not provide a set of criteria for collectively identifying an utterance. In this respect, utterances differ from sentences.

3. The relationship between linguistic structure and language use

The generative model separates the knowledge of language (competence) from the use of language (performance). According to this view, competence determines performance, whereas performance can be influenced by external factor such as tiredness and so on. Accordingly, performance fails to adequately reflect competence.
CLs argue in direct opposition to this view, that knowledge of language is derived from and informed by language use.

Furthermore, the context in which an utterance is situated is central to the cognitive explanation. This is particularly true for word meaning, which is protean in nature (word meaning is rather changeable depending on the context) Consider for example the sentence: • It’s dark in here. Depending on whether I am in a cave with somebody, entering a poorly lit room or entering a very brightly lit room this utterance refers to the absence of light, a request to turn the light on or is an ironic statement.

Frequency Assumption: The relative frequency with which particular words or other kinds of constructions are encountered by the speaker will affect the nature of the language system. Linguistic units that are frequently encountered become more entrenched (established as a cognitive pattern or routine) in the language system. The most entrenched linguistic units therefore tend to shape the language system into patterns of use, at the expense of less frequently and thus less well entrenched words or constructions. It follows that the language system, while deriving from language use, can also influence language use.


Language change
Language acquisition