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Language and Life

Universals and Particulars
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

There are similarities between languages because of similarities between people.  We all have a similar nervous system.  All human brains seem to work similarly.  Thought processes may be organized quite differently as people develop in different societies, but there are certain patterns common to all humans.  These patterns can be identified in language.

But similarities observable in language are somewhat abstract, not very obvious at surface level.  Linguists have been able to identify these areas of similarity through over one century of systematic analysis and comparison of various languages around the world.  This is why we may say Language A is related to Language B.

How Similar?
Some forms of speech we call "a language" may be obviously, observably similar to another "language." But some "languages" are so different, structural similarities are apparent only after scientific analysis.  Thus Swahili is visibly and immediately similar to Zulu, while it is less apparent to a learner that Russian is similar to English, though this is also undeniably true.

Skills and Experiences
How soon a language learner catches onto the similarities between the native language and the target language depends on mental analysis skills and previous learning experience.  There are some differences in the way each of us learns. But there are great similarities. Particularly in learning languages.

We humans formulate concepts and organize what we perceive and experience.  These become our mental "universals," which we have derived logically from the "particulars" we have learned or experienced.  This relationship between universals and particulars were a popular discussion in Western classical philosophy.

Learning depends on previous experience, individual analytical skills, motor skills, associational (lateral thinking) skills. But all human languages have "language" in common, because all human beings have humanity in common.

Because language is a social skill, there are many things common to all languages, despite the specific differences. This means that most people can learn any language necessary, no matter what their specific previous experiences have been.

Teachers, linguists and language analysts can help the learner, applying the knowledge of language universals to the practical learning of any and all languages.  It helps the learner to gain some training in analysis.  Some awareness of universal social constructs can help the learner, too.

It was in this background that some classic language and culture learning helps were developed.  Donald Larson developed Guidelines for Barefoot Language Learning in this context, with a sequence of lesson topics, built upon social situations universal among humans.

The language sequence in the lesson texts of these situations are also universal, beginning with opening and closing encounters, proceeding to self-identification and other-identification, surviving (food, water, etc.) and proceeding over a nine-month period to relationships, thoughts and social organization.

Differences are in focus for the learner.  The differences are more obvious than the similarities.  The similarities become more evident after more experience.


Originally published under the same title as a general article in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, April 1993
Includes another article originally published as a general article, “Learning: A Common Experience” in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, September 1994.
First Posted 22 August 2005
Last edited 12 April 2008

Copyright © 1993-1994, 2005 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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