From the CanIL Blog

Read below for recent articles of linguistic tidbits and news from CanIL.


 

How do you know when you know a language?

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It could be that your knowledge of other languages falls somewhere in the ‘grey zone.’ You may have dabbled here and there and spent periods of time in foreign countries, where you acquired varying degrees of proficiency in one or more languages. Perhaps you flounder every time someone asks ‘How many languages do you speak?’ because you know that “knowing” a language is not a concrete point at which one arrives. I’ve heard people claim that you can say you know a language when you find yourself dreaming in it. While this is certainly a romantic notion, it falls short of being an objective measure.

Two common beliefs about learning language are that it involves learning a body of facts (such as vocabulary and grammar rules), or that to learn a language is to form a set of habits (perhaps through repetition). However, unlike memorizing the periodic table or learning to ride a bicycle, as Greg Thomson states, "language learning requires your brain to actually use language as language... in the final analysis, that is the only thing that will get your brain to acquire the language” (1993). I’m reminded of when I used to teach ESL. Sometimes after sharing my vocation, people would say, “That must be easy, since English is your first language.” Well, it wasn’t easy, especially at the lower levels. In what other field of teaching is the subject of your teaching the very same modality that you’re teaching in? In other words, teaching a language to people who don’t speak that language requires circumlocution and adeptness in using gestures and other improvisation that rivals the theatrics in first-rate drama. Learning a language is the same way; your brain must use (not just memorize) language in order to learn it. It’s an amazing feat, really.

So what do we really know when we say we know a language? Well there are four areas or competencies by which we display our ability to communicate: grammatical, sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic. [1]

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Explanation in Linguistics: Advocating a Functional Perspective

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Two goals of linguistics are (i) the description of natural languages, and (ii) an explanation for why languages are the way they are. One proposed explanation for why languages are the way they are comes out of the view that the capacity for humans to acquire language – the language faculty – is an innate (i.e. inborn) feature of the human mind. That is, it is a genetic endowment – something that humans have because of the way they are genetically wired, which would be the same reason why humans have five fingers on each hand (generally), a nose with two nostrils, a heart situated on the leftish side of the chest, etc.

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Why are we literally in love with literalness?

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Can a word have an intrinsic “real meaning”? Is it possible for an identical one-to-one correspondence to exist between a word in one language and a word in another language? Do the same words mean the same thing to you as they do to me? Questions such as these have huge ramifications, especially for the legal system, which rests upon a strong emphasis on “definitions” and the assumption of “precision” in language.

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