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Aspects of Language
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Our concepts about language affect the way we approach learning of foreign languages.  But many times our concepts are not anchored in the realities of language.  Some basic aspects of language established through extensive observations and analysis indicate some productive approaches to learning.

Language is not information, but the format for processing information -- not explanation, but mastery.  Drill and practice helps to impress the models of the languages into the learner's subconscious.  This enables the learner to approach natural spontaneous production, based on thought and intent.  This takes practice.

We tend to think of explanations of the language as critical.  But the cognitive part of language is in our use of the language to think.  Therefore, understanding explanations of the language is not the same as using the patterns of the language to form our very thoughts!

Conscious awareness of the models and structures may help the learner master the structures rather than be limited by them.  But the models must be mastered, in order for thought to flow into communication.  This is done through practice and use.

Language consists in social events, communication events, interaction with other people.  In common teaching approaches, language is often isolated from its practical context.  Learning a dialogue only in a classroom, for instance, gives no context for memory other than the classroom. 

Then every language text learned in that classroom has the very same memory context!  No wonder learners get tired and find it hard to remember words or phrases!

Learners can retain much more, with less memory work, by association with total event, place, relationship, action or movement, emotion, smell and sound.  Languages are used by social groups (families, clans, tribes, societies) to manage their relationships and cultural roles, obligations and interrelationships.

Culture is the context of the social encounter in the communication event.  Previous experiences affect expectations.  Thus differences in the experiences related to history, and cultural or ethnic identity lead to differences in expectations for communication events.

Spanish, Swahili and French are examples of multi-national, multi-ethnic languages. Thus different sets of experiences and resulting sets of expectations exist even in the same language "community".

Most people intuitively know this, but it is overlooked when we approach the actual learning, because we are so school oriented, that many westerners do not think they can learn unless they are in a school.  Then if they lack such a resource they see no options.

A large part of cultural knowledge is cognitive -- you can gain an entrance through explanations  in your native language, you can watch movies for cultural insight, you can read sources in your native tongue -- all these can help you move into target language.  But there is the social aspect of culture.

Communication events involve exchange of cultural information.  This is managed in the target language of the culture group and in the context of their common experiences.

Language is a motor skill.  A new language will feel funny, but difficult to produce.  It is analogous to riding a bicycle or mastering a physical sport.  The tongue, lips, throat and other speech apparatus have to learn new positions and sequences of positions.

This takes preparation, practice, mastery, training.  The learner will fall off the bicycle, have limited stamina and skill at first, but the total experience builds as one continues to work on the various aspects of the motor skills involved.


First Published as a general article in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, December 1996, as "Perspectives:  Aspects of Language."
This version first posted 07 June 2001
Last edited 16 April 2002

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1996, 2001
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.
Email: orville@jenkins.nu saxophone@bigfoot.com
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