The Randomly Structured World of Language

There’s this book on language learning and teaching that has inspired me to write something on the subject of language, culture, and identity.

I find that the two first points of the eight pointers that the writer put under the various definitions of ‘language’ rather paradoxical!  Point 1: Language is systematic and generative; Point 2: Language is arbitrary. It is not something that we make a point of realizing, as we accept language in its wholeness when we begin learning it as a child.

In the beginning our civilizations began communicating using language – someone thought of applying a sound or word to connect with an object or idea. All of these “choices” are arbitrary, and we have learned them in such a way that idea and word reflect each other. But outside of these random affiliations of sounds, letters, and words of a language, we have a strict structural system that governs why using certain words in certain situations is wrong (the easiest example is learning grammar)!

The issue of learning a second language (or third, or fourth and so on) is an important part of modern life today. The need to be international, whether as a person, for travel, or for business, has influenced teaching methodologies in the past twenty years relevant to language learning. One point made by the author is that language constructs identities. I don’t know anyone who would not agree with this (of course, I am not saying language is the ONLY thing that constructs who we are!) and hence, “second language learning in some respects involves the acquisition of a second identity.” I think this point is fair enough. And so, there are some who find it difficult to acquire another language, due to his/her language ego, which becomes a barrier to second language learning.

Another reason to the difficulties (and also the inter-cultural aspect!) of language learning is that it is also often a learning of the culture. Here is a short extract on the topic:

“Culture is really an integral part of the interaction between language and thought. Cultural patterns, customs, and ways of life are expressed in language; culture-specific world views are reflected in language. Cultures have different ways of dividing the color spectrum, for example, illustrating differing world views on what color is and how to identify color…the Shona of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the Bassa of Liberia have fewer color catergories than speakers of European languages and they break up the spectrum at different points. Of course, the Shona or Bassa are able to perceive and describe different colors, in the same way that an English speaker might describe a “dark bluish green,” but the labels which the language provides tend to shap the person’s overall cognitive organization of color and to cause varying degrees of color discrimination. Eskimo tribes commonly have as many as seven different words for ‘snow’ to distinguush among different types of snow (fallen snow, snow on the ground, fluffy snow, wet snow, and so forth), while certain African cultures in the equatorial forsts of Zaire have no word at all for snow.”
(Brown, H. Douglas. 1987. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, 2nd edn., New Jersey, Prentice-Hall Inc, p139, my italics)

I know that Shona only has three ‘colour words’, white, black, and red. Of course they talk about other colours too, but there is no assigned word for it, such as “the colour of the leaves’. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Learning a language is hard. Language is essentially an arbitrary system of symbols that we have arranged and made systematic. But what we take from it all depends on motivation. Make the most of language learning, to learn both the arbitrary symbols and cultural meanings. Two birds with one stone.

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