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Language and Life

O Redundant, O Repetitive Tongue
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Do you like mysteries?  Well, languages hold lots of mystery, particularly for learners.  But languages, like a good mystery story, also provide clues along the way.  The learner has to look for and learn the clues for the particular language.  Many indicators of meaning are duplicated in the sentence.

This duplications of clues, called redundancy, is a principle or pattern found in all human languages.  Every language has more than one signal system for certain kinds of meaning, so that the set of signals give multiple clues to speakers and hearers.  Look at some simple examples in English.

English, and other European languages have matching forms for verb and subject.  Look at the sentence:

           The boys are going to town.

You know there is more than one boy, because there is an s on boy, and the verb is are, not is.

How Redundant

This is not true for all dialects of English.  Each community’s speech form follows strong and clear patterns and requirements.  The correct matching form for some dialects would be

           The boys is going.

In this case redundancy is decreased.  You have only the s on boys to clue you that there is more than one boy involved.

But a second sentence adds redundancy for both these languages:

           The boys are going.  They will be gone for two days.
           The boys is going.    They will be gone for two days.
            (or:  They a be gone .. or:  They gonn(a) be gone ....)

Another set, with pronouns:

          Them cans is full.
          Those cans are full.

In both these languages (which for political and perhaps geographical reasons both have the name English) you see more than one signal for plural:  them and they both indicate plural, supplementing the word boys in both languages.

Noun Classes
Bantu languages organize nouns into classes, or groups, according to the phonetic prefix.  In Kikuyu, for instance, people and living things usually have the prefix mu to indicate singular and a to indicate plural.  For tools, or things made from living things the prefix is ki (with the phonetic variant gi) for singular and i for plural.

Each class has a matching marker for subject or object of the verb, usually the same phonetic form as the prefix of the noun itself.  Thus you see patterns like:  

           Kiti giki ni kinene.   Iti ino ni inene.
                       (This chair, these chairs, are big.)

           Mundu uyu ni munene.   Andu aya ni anene.
                       (This person, these people, are big.)

In this case, Kikuyu informs you in three places of both singular, plural and type of entity.  That is, ki-gi-ki tells you this is a non-animate usable single thing.  Likewise i-i(no)-i tells you these are non-animate usable things.  For the other set, the mu-uyu-mu and aa- aya-a tell you similarly that these are singular or plural living beings.

These Kikuyu sentences give you more clues than their English equivalents, since big is the same for all things or people, singular or plural.  Listening to all these clues, you will hear one or two and grasp the meaning.  This is redundancy.  You don't have to get all the details, just one of the several clues offered.

It is easier to gain hearing comprehension in a language which has more redundancy than in one with less redundancy.  French is hard for English speakers to hear, because in the spoken language, there are fewer clues.  Over the centuries, French pronunciation, and thus word-forms, have changed so much that the endings indicating singular and plural now sound the same for many words.

Thus you have to listen to other parts of the sentence to get the distinction.  Or sometimes just the context.  So you have to concentrate harder to hear French than German, which is more like English.

On the other hand, most French adjectives have separate endings for masculine and feminine, so it is easier to hear than English, which has the same form for all, singular, plural, masculine or feminine.  Reading French is not so hard, because the written form follows the older form of the language, making spelling distinctions which are not pronounced anymore, which give you additional clues.

Thus many people find it easier to read French than to hear it.  It is too bad French people will not write down every sentence for you and wait while you read it, before expecting a response!

When you are learning a new language, you lack some of these clues.  You cannot learn them all at once.  Thus you do not know enough variety to hear all the things in a sentence that tell you what you need to know to understand what the speaker meant.

Start Simple
This is why language courses start with simpler sentences, which you can hear and master, then add more complex sentences as you go.  As a learner, you need to have a realistic concept of yourself, how much you can take at a time and what to expect of yourself.  You need to have reasonable goals.  You cannot possibly hear everything anyone might say to you.  That is okay.  It is normal.

You need to make adjustments, then, to listen for certain kinds of clues at a certain stage in your experience.  In this way you can gradually master the full range of common clues provided in the language.

But it will take time, so be ready to misunderstand.  Be ready for the role of comedian as you make funny mistakes, and get into humiliating situations. Usually it hurts you more than the native speakers, who are usually quite forgiving — even the French, if you are really trying!

Limited Range
In the early stages of your learning, a word-form or language structure has to be specific.  You have a limited range of recognition in sound, structure, vocabulary and intonation (tone).  Thus comprehension is more of a problem for most learners then speaking.  You can use what you know to say what you want, albeit with limitations.  But you can exercise no control over the range a native speaker may use with you.

“Or can you?” With the right approach, you can in fact exercise certain controls over “input.” Learners should learn phrases to control the input, to slow down the speaker, get repetition, clarification, variation, etc.

This should be a part of the early language samples learnt in entry orientation and even before.  If your language course does not contain this, you as learner must take the initiative to get this from your teacher or from an informal helper.  Learning to control input will help you process more, earlier.

Redundant Tongues, Reluctant Ears
The principle of redundancy is what enables speakers and hearers to understand long segments of speech without having to grasp every sound and word.  Learn these dues, and gain more control over input.  Our redundant tongues can help our reluctant ears!


This topic originally published in the "Language and Life" series in the cross-cultural communication journal Afri-Com December 1993
This updated version written and posted on Thoughts and Resources 9 October 2008

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 1993, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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