There are many definitions of language to be found, however, language is a complex phenomenon and defining it accurately is very difficult. Several scholars have attempted to define language particularly Sapir, Block and Trager, Chomsky, and Hall (Lyons, 1981).
According to Sapir 1921, “language is a purely non-instinctive method of communicating ideas emotions and desires by means of voluntarily produced symbols”. In contrast to this definition is that of Block and Trager 1942 who write that “A language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group co-operates”. Sapir’s definition only indirectly implies the communicative function of language where Block and Trager focus on social function and the role language plays in society (Lyons, 1981). From both of these definitions it is clear to see that, as far as natural language is concerned, there is a close relationship between language and speech (Lyons, 1981).
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A definition that seems to be more modern and realistic but not without criticism is that of Hall 1968, which states that language is “the institution whereby humans communicate and interact with each other by means of habitually used oral-auditory arbitrary symbols”. It must me noted that both communication and interaction are introduced in this definition and ‘oral-auditory’ refers to both the speaker and receiver (Lyons, 1981). Hall and Sapir view language as solely a human institution and that the language that is used by a particular society is part of that society’s culture (Lyons, 1981).
According to Noam Chomsky (Fromkin, Rodman, Hyams, Collins, Amberber, & Harvey, 2007), “when we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the ‘human essence’, the distinctive qualities of man that are, so as we know, unique to man”. Language is the source of human life and power; when people come together whether it is to play, fight or socialise for example, they talk. The possession of language, more than any other attribute, distinguishes humans from any other animal. Fromkin et. al. (2007) states, that to understand our humanity, one must understand the nature of language that makes us human.
Chomsky considers language to be a set (finite or infinite number) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements (Lyons, 1981). According to this definition, Chomsky believes that all natural languages in either spoken or written form are languages in the sense of his definition; since each natural language has a finite number of sounds in it and although there may be infinitely many distinct sentences in the language, each sentence can be represented as a finite sequence of these sounds (Lyons, 1981). This view of Chomsky focuses on the structural properties of language rather than the communicative function of natural or non-natural languages.
The definitions discussed are to not give one specific example of what language is, but to introduce some of the properties which linguists believe to be essential features of language.
Noam Chomsky introduced the notion of Universal Grammar in the 1950’s. He used this notion to identify rules and principles that could be applied to all human languages (Fromkin et. al 2007). This does not mean that we all speak the same language but share a universal understanding of the functionality and basic principles of language (Joseph, Love, & Taylor, 2001).
Universal grammar is a theory of knowledge, not a behaviour. Chomsky believes we are born with a certain ability for language but it is our experience and exposure of the individual language that develop further ideas and specific rules for that particular language. Such exposure and environmental situations are mere influences over how well the innate framework is developed (Joseph, et. al., 2001).
Fromkin et. al.(2007), highlights the fact that language competence is achieved very early in childhood and at what is thought to be the same rate across cultures. This shows evidence that there are principles governing grammatical structure of all languages that are genetically coded into the human brain.
Although languages sound different and we do not use the same words to identify things or objects for example, there is a simple underlying structure that can be identified in all languages such as phonology, morphology, syntax and prosody. Whether it be a language where the basic structure is Subject Verb Object (SVO) or Subject Object Verb (SOV), the meaning can be understood universally (Fromkin, et. al. 2007).
In summary, Universal grammar does not claim that all languages have the same grammar, rather it is a set of rules that can explain how we acquire languages and how we construct valid sentences (Chomsky, 2002).
In contrast to the theory of universal grammar, Halliday (1978), claims that language is a systematic resource involving the purposeful (functional) use of linguistic knowledge. He believes we use our linguistic resources to make meaning. Halliday’s theory of Functional Grammar attempts to explain how spoken and written texts construe meaning.
The theory was first developed for the grammar of Chinese and has been used in educational and computational contexts for many years. Systemic functional grammar uses a resource perspective rather than the rule perspective and attempts to display the overall system of grammar and not just fragments (Matthiessen, & Halliday, 1997). Language is used to interact with one another to construct and maintain interpersonal relations and the social order underlying them. Matthiessen & Halliday state that language is a natural part of the process of living and is used to ‘store’ the experience developed throughout the course of that process. Language is a tool for representing knowledge, hence language is used to construct meaning.
Halliday (Feez, 1995), describes language as a ‘social-semiotic’ as it is “one of the systems of meanings which make up a culture or social system and there is an important relationship between the choices that can be made from the system of language and the social structures within the social system”.
Systemic functional linguistics is ‘functional’ in the respect that it strives to explain why language users choose to use specific language and in what contexts they change the type of language spoken.
Language is a multi-modal function of expression and can be used by individuals in different situations at different levels. For example, as children are developing language, their use of tenses and grammatical features are generally absent until this behaviour is taught. Whilst their meaning is often understood eg saying ‘peoples’ instead of ‘people’ it is a learned behaviour. Formal language is also substituted in socially accepted settings and differs enormously from the way people interact with friends and family. Whilst all levels of language are used and to a variety of purposes, it is understood that the formality and purpose of the use of language are interchangeable without the loss of meaning.
Throughout this course, my knowledge of language has changed significantly. I spoke English fluently and with the correct grammatical structures however, I did not understand what the term ‘language’ meant. I was unfamiliar with the terms ‘prescriptive grammars’, ‘competence’, ‘performance’ or ‘registers’.
After completing course readings and interacting with others studying this course I have learnt many things and my interest has grown significantly in the discipline area of language. I am now more aware that we as humans use varied language depending on the context in which we are speaking. Dialects are also another area of language in which I have found interesting. Learning that although people may speak the same language, the dialect (accent) is different and speakers may come across as pronouncing words differently. When two people speak the same language but are from different regions and speak differently it is known as a dialect of the same language. This is known as systematic difference as the language may differ slightly in vocabulary and structure but be the same language (Finegan, 2004).
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I feel that I can now say that I not only use language but understand that there are many elements of language and that it is not by accident that we become proficient in our native language. There is much to be said about the innateness of language. I now have an understanding of how I make sounds and that the component of language that relates to this is phonetics. I never learnt that we use certain parts of the mouth and different muscles to produce sounds that make up our language. By completing the set readings and activities for this course I have learnt that we tend not to learn the formal rules of pronunciation when learning our first language and that we are unfamiliar with the inbuilt rules that can be present in other languages and that sounds are made differently. This can have an effect on how well we learn or develop our understanding of an additional language and how our pronunciation may never reach the proficiency of a native speaker.
I understand that language is complex and requires much research and investigation to become familiar with the many rules and structures. Humans learn at least one language in their lifetime, however, I have learnt that most are unaware of the inbuilt components and how we construct the conversations. We simply speak our language without thinking about how complex it is.
This essay has shown that language is a complex phenomenon and the study of language needs extensive exploration to produce a comprehensive understandable definitions and structures. There were several definitions discussed in the first section of this essay. The conclusion that can be drawn from the definition of language is that, there is no one definition or explanation of what human language is. This shows the complexity and the contrasting view points of those scholars discussed. The section highlights both Universal and Functional Grammar and the differences between both theories. Universal Grammar uses the notion that can be applied to all human languages, where as Functional Grammar claims that language is a systematic resource involving the purposeful use of linguistic knowledge. Halliday (1978) supports this notion by stating that, we use our linguistic resources to make meaning.
In addition to discussing the previous three elements of language, I have also discussed how my ideas, thoughts and understandings of language have changed over the course of studying this subject. As previously discussed the main learning curves in this course for me are that I now understand that language is complex and requires much research and investigation to become familiar with the many rules and structures that make up a language. Humans learn at least one language, however, most are unaware of the inbuilt components and how we construct the conversations.
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