What Is Language And How Do We Learn It?

What Is Language And How Do We Learn It

Have you ever asked yourself:


– how babies learn language and how that’s different from learning a foreign language


– how easy or difficult it is to teach English as a foreign language


– how a language teacher comes to grips with finding out and explaining language rules


– how to describe the different ways people talk and write English


– what sort of person makes a good language teacher and whether you might be that sort of person?


If your answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, then this course should interest you.


What are the aims of the course?


The main aim of this course is to act as a taster for anyone who feels they might like to pursue an interest in language or language teaching. It is designed to fascinate and intrigue but above all to be clear and straightforward about the nature of the English language. For instance, it highlights the variety and diversity displayed by English. The differences between colloquial English, conversational and written English may seem at first obvious, but they are not and they are not always mirrored in other languages. In Arabic-speaking countries, educated people sometimes use classical Arabic in speech as well as in writing, whereas less educated people speak only colloquial Arabic. The differences in convention between the two languages must be well understood by teacher and learner alike if confusion and misunderstanding are not to result. But this course is not just about the system and use of language. The information it provides is always set in the context of learning development, both the learning that you will be doing as course user and the learning achieved by learners of a Foreign language.


A second aim of language and learning awareness is to promote English language teaching (ELT) as a profession rather than as just a backpacker’s passport. You might think the days are gone when to get into teaching English as a foreign language (EFL), the first step was to ‘practice’ on a class, without so much as a day’s training. Sadly this does still happen, and of course is fair neither to the learners nor the ‘teacher’. I hope that this course will persuade anyone who isn’t persuaded already how important it is to counter this state of affairs.


A third aim has been to sensitize the user to issues and principles rather than dazzle them with names and difficult terminology. The course is written in a direct, personal style and any terms which might possibly pose a problem are either fully explained in the text or appear in a glossary which can be accessed at any time. In general, it has been kept jargon free. If at any stage you come across a point which you don’t find easy to follow, don’t worry or give up. It may become clearer later, so it’s worth carrying on and returning to it if you need to. Be prepared to side-step a stumbling block rather than treat it as a barrier to the rest of the course.


Can’t any English speaker teach English?


Those starting an ELT course sometimes wonder what all the fuss is about, particularly if they are native English speakers. Surely anyone who can speak English can teach it, can’t they? The short answer to this question is ‘no’, just as not every driver can teach someone else to drive.


Take the learning of new words. Words are not clear-cut and tidy. They are affected by the context in which they occur, and you learn a little bit more about them each time you meet them. The same is true of grammar rules. They are not like school rules or the rules of football. If you were asked to tell someone when you use the simple present tense in English (for example I write stories, she drives a bus, we have Sunday lunch together) you might start by telling them you use it for something that somebody does frequently. But very soon this information is insufficient as you come across sentences like ‘New player fails second drug test’, or ‘Our plane leaves at six, so be there by five’ or ‘I hear you had an accident.’


Helping a learner through this maze is just one aspect of a teacher’s challenge. Another is deciding how much information to give learners. How much is ‘enough for now’ because you don’t want to confuse them? For their part, learners themselves need to develop ways of learning to learn. The teacher isn’t there all the time, and a spirit of independence improves the learning process enormously. Of course, people learn in different ways and for all sorts of reasons. A language teacher must be flexible, naturally curious, have an instinct for putting the right questions to the learners about their learning, and not feel that he has all the answers. Nobody does.


Isn’t a good grammar book enough?


A good grammar book is an excellent thing to have, but it doesn’t show how speakers choose language to fit the situation they are in, what style to use and what words to use with what other words. These sorts of facts as well as grammatical ones concerning such things as tense and word order can all be discovered by systematic listening and reading; and it is this sense of discovery that the course is particularly designed to foster in you from the start. In fact, the course doesn’t start with what most people see as traditional grammar. It isn’t until Unit 3 that traditional grammar concepts are highlighted. This reflects modern approaches to learning a language. Yes, grammar is important, indeed vital. But for effective learning to take place it must always be set in the context of all the other aspects of language.


Must EFL teachers be familiar with other languages?


English has now outgrown both its British and American parents and has many international varieties. World trade and world English are taking off together. In China 100 million people watched the BBC’s English language course ‘Follow Me’ in the 1980s, and there are now some 400 million Chinese learners of English (Source: https://www.britishcouncil.cn/en/EnglishGreat/numbers). It has been calculated that 1.4+ billion of the world’s population speaks English either as native or non-native speakers (Source: https://www.berlitz.com/blog/most-spoken-languages-world). However, this is not an excuse for ignoring other languages. Keeping alive an interest in and curiosity about other languages (both for teachers and learners) is one step we can take towards making teacher and learner self-respecting partners. The two practical ways a teacher can do this are by learning another language himself, and by drawing on the learners’ languages during the teaching process.


What happens next?


I hope that by the end of this course you will be wanting to know more about language. You may also, have gone on to ask yourself questions such as how a teacher designs a syllabus, plans lessons, organizes the classroom and chooses activities, delivers lessons and assesses the learners’ language levels. If so, then that is where a teacher training course takes up the story.




This first unit encourages you to reflect on the nature of language itself. Some of it may startle you or it may confirm what you thought before. Either way I hope it opens a door to the extraordinary phenomenon of language – which we so often take for granted as something that just happens. Throughout the text you will find some words printed in bold the first time they are used. You will find these words in the glossary at the end of the unit in which they are introduced, so it will probably be useful to look them up when you first come across them, if they are unfamiliar to you. When you do one of the activities do all you can to complete them before reading the ‘Comments’.


What counts as language?


If you are considering a career in language teaching, one of the first steps is to become familiar with language itself. Only then can you really assess your own interest in the field. We’ll start, therefore, with a general look at the phenomenon of language. The title of this section is ‘What counts as language?’, but perhaps it is easier to start by asking the question the other way round: ‘What doesn’t count as language?’ Do this activity once. Then look up the word language in a dictionary (see the glossary for some recommendations).




Look at the eight situations below and decide whether you think language is involved in each case or not. Check the box under language or not language for each of them.


  1. a cat looking at a tin of catfood, miaowing
  2. a woman reading the paper in the train
  3. the African honey bird leading people to where the bees have made honey
  4. two deaf people signing to each other in the pub
  5. a dog jumping and fetching her lead when she hears ‘walkies’
  6. a parrot singing ‘Over the Sea to Skye’
  7. a two-year-old saying ‘Daddy gone’
  8. Washoe the chimpanzee using American Sign Language to communicate: ‘ball in my cup’


Now, if you can, find another person to do this activity as well and see if you agree with each other.


Finally, think about why you have given the answers you have. What differences are there between the situations you have labelled as ‘language’ and the ones you have considered to be ‘not language’? Note down your ideas before continuing. These are my answers:


Language: 2, 4, 7

Not language: 1, 3, 5, 6

I have not included (8) here. This is rather more controversial, as you will see shortly.


Features of human language


Most people agree that while actions such as miaowing, whining, whistling, chirping, barking, tail-wagging, purring, dancing, howling, grunting, trumpeting, teeth-baring and ground-pawing, convey certain things, they do not have enough of the characteristics of human language to be defined as language. For instance, the miaow of a hungry cat might sound the same as the miaow of a thirsty cat or one that wants to go out. Equally it can’t say these things in other ways: it can never convey, as we can in human language, ‘Oh, don’t you understand? Then let me miaow that another way. What I want you to do is feed me, and feed me now.’


As for talking and singing parrots, there seems to be no real message involved at all because they have no understanding of what it is about. ‘Daddy gone’ is different. Here we find sounds which, in themselves, bear no logical relation to what the child means. It’s arbitrary. The word for father doesn’t have to be daddy. In French and Spanish, for instance, the word papa is used for the same thing, which clearly sounds very different. This message is also different in that when daddy is put together with the word gone, the message takes on a distinct meaning and we can say that grammar is being used (even though it isn’t fully developed adult grammar).


We could use this particular ‘grammar rule’ to produce other messages by replacing either word for another one like it: mummy gone, mummy cross, daddy happy and so on.


If you try and think up some more utterances like these which follow the same pattern, you’ll find you can go on forever, replacing ‘mummy’ with other names, and ‘gone’ with different adjectives. This capacity for infinite creativity based on a simple rule is an absolutely central concept in language and one which marks off animal communication from human language.


But what about Washoe and her ‘ball in cup’? Work with gorillas and chimpanzees since the 1960s has looked closely at their language abilities, and here we find the situation is far from clear cut. Some researchers believe that, even though chimpanzees can’t use their vocal cords to articulate sounds, nevertheless they do have the competence for language. But despite many years’ work the jury is still out on this question. You have now seen that language users can go on producing completely new utterances forever and they don’t have to work out new rules for everything they say because the number of grammatical rules is limited. Human creativity can work on this finite pool of rules to produce an almost infinite amount of new language.



Defining language


The notion of creativity is especially important for language teachers to appreciate because learners in the classroom are often invited, quite rightly, to repeat words, patterns and sounds. To speak and understand the language properly, though, a learner has to go further: in other words, a language learner may be a good ‘parrot’ in the classroom but have little ability to communicate in real life with real people.


Make a note of why you think some people would now disagree with the term ‘species-specific’. In the definition of language, the term species-specific might be disputed by scientists researching the language abilities of gorillas and chimpanzees who, they claim, do have a potential to learn language.


When you have completed this unit you will be able to:


– cite some important features of human language

– explain why sign language is a language

– distinguish between implicit and explicit knowledge of grammar

– explain why acquiring language can be seen as a process of growth rather than learning

– identify some differences between first and second language learning

– identify some foreign language learning methods based on the way first languages are acquired.



Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of https://Ebookschoice.com. Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.


Source: https://master331.medium.com/what-is-language-and-how-do-we-learn-it-5eedbd757d69

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