Theory, Model, Method

Concepts of language

Language is not just communicating the literal meanings of grammatical sentences, but also communication with other people.

What is language

Grammatical competence is almost useless for human interaction without communicative competence. In fact, a lot of the actual use of language is not in sentences at all, but in discourse units larger and smaller than sentences, some grammatical (in the technical sense used in formal linguistics), some not. To be effective, speakers have to combine grammatical competence with the knowledge of how to use grammatical sentences (and other pieces of linguistics structure) appropriately to the purpose and context at hand. The two taken together comprise communicative competence. Communicative competence – the knowledge included in grammatical competence plus the ability to use that knowledge to accomplish a wide range of communicative jobs – constitutes language.
(Source: Fasold, Connor-Linton (2006). An Introduction to Language and Linguistics, Cambridge University Press, pp. 9-10)

A different question, even a different scientific perspective relates to questions like “What regulates the understanding, production, and storage of a language?”. Linguists taking this perspective are concerned with constructing psycholinguistic theories of mental processing and the mechanism of use in communication. More specifically, linguists are interested in distinct parts of a language and how they are mentally represented.

When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the “human essence”, the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man.
(Source: Noam Chomsky (1972). Language and Mind, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, pp. 112.)

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Another approach asks: “what regulates the social and situational use of a language, that is used in human communication?” and tries to give scientifically reliable answers to questions of communicative and textual use of a language – questions that earlier prescriptive academics and language teachers language arrived at only from intuitive ways of looking at a language. The main aim, however, is the explanation of the unconscious and fluent (”smooth”) course of conversations between human beings.

Therefore different dimensions of linguistic studies can be found. “The scope of linguistics includes both language structure (and the grammatical competence underlying it) and language use (and its underlying communicative competence).” (Source: Finegan, Edward (2004). Language: its Structure and Use, Boston, Mass., Wadsworth, pp. 21). And the mental aspect should be added. Psycholinguistic and socio-linguistic instances of language use are often subsumed under the notion of performance (governed by a communicative competence such as the knowledge of how to use a language).

All these dimensions and point of views give evidence to both the cognitive and cultural status of human language:

Language makes us human. Whatever we do, language is central to our lives, and the use of language underpins the study of every other discipline. Understanding language gives us insight into ourselves and a tool for the investigation of the rest of the universe.
(Source: Neil Smith, Chomsky’s science of language , in McGilvray, James (2005). The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky, Cambridge University Press , pp. 21)

Taking into consideration the complexity of the phenomenon of human language, it is not easy to provide a definition of a human or natural language. The crucial theory-based concepts here are system and structure. These constitute the modern way of looking at languages.

The handling of the complexity of language requires the application of specific methods of theory construction and data handling, as there are methods of isolating data (simplifying or even removing the contexts of data) and of language users (idealisation of a speaker). The need or rejection of such methods, as found in several linguistic theories, depends on the objects and areas of scientific research. Analysing conversations between human beings with their permanent variations is different from investigating the rather fixed structure in the grammar of a language. The first is necessarily connected with contexts and the speaker’s individual properties, the second seems to be independent from speaker and context. Some areas of language seem to be a mixture of variation and fixed status.

Exercises on Concepts of Language