Implications and Contributions From Linguistics

Implications and Contributions From Linguistics

There is not now, nor can there ever be, a “linguistic method” of foreign language teaching. Application of the results of contemporary linguistic knowledge alone cannot provide all the insights and information necessary for successful foreign language instruction.

 Obviously, if students have no motivation other than the completion of a requirement for graduation, no teacher can force them to master a foreign language, no matter how much time is spent on the task or what methods and materials are used. And, if the teacher does not speak the language fluently, students will never learn it unless they are able to find some additional source from which to learn.

A linguistic description of a language will indicate which forms and features must be learned, but the linguist cannot offer valid professional advice on how such learning is best achieved.

 This is an area in which language teachers must turn to studies by psychologists on factors such as attention and memory span. Psychology may also be able to provide some insight into the necessity of grammatical explanations for adult students or the most effective ratio between actual language usage and descriptions of usage, grammar, or pronunciation.

 As with the contributions of linguistics, the suggestions made by psychologists regarding foreign language acquisition will be only as valid and adequate as the assumptions, techniques, and research results on which they are based.

There are also limitations inherent in the present limits of the discipline. Modern linguistics is the study of the nature of language and the linguistic competence of the people who use a particular language.

 How this linguistic competence is actually put to use in the production or interpretation of speech or writing is a matter that currently lies beyond our understanding. Actual language performance is the goal of most foreign language learners, but linguistics has little to say about performance itself. Of course, performance does presuppose competence, and, in this sense, linguists can make a contribution by describing some of the knowledge that foreign language learners must acquire.

 Another limitation should be apparent from the section on syntax. Many linguists are only beginning to concern themselves with units of language larger than the sentence, but the kind of normal language performance sought by the language learner involves not just individual sentences but monologues, dialogues, conversations, paragraphs, chapters, and books. Yet, in spite of the limits of most modern linguistic research, some contribution is possible here, for one could neither understand nor produce sequences of sentences unless one also knew how to produce single sentences.

A grammatical description of the sentences of a language, therefore, is an account of part of the knowledge that underlies the ability to engage in the normal use of language.

The proper application of linguistics to language teaching lies in an understanding of what language is. The insights linguists have attained about the complex, abstract, and systematic nature of language are helpful to both teachers and students of foreign languages, for such insights provide an understanding of the enormity of the task they are attempting to accomplish. But the proper application of linguistics is not a classroom presentation of a formal grammar, no matter how valid that grammar may be as an account of the competence of native speakers of the language.

Modern linguists do not claim that the rules of their grammars actually exist in the same form in the minds of speakers. The grammars merely capture the same kind of knowledge the speakers have.

Human beings may store this knowledge in a totally different form; we know too little about the human brain to make any claims of identity between our grammars and the speakers’ minds.

Consequently, there is no claim by linguists that speakers of a language actually produce sentences by a process of selecting underlying structures, inserting lexical items, applying transformations one at a time, and then passing this surface structure through a set of phonological rules. Just because a grammar is arranged to begin with meaning and end with phonetic representations is no reason for language learners to put off mastering pronunciation until they have learned how to produce all of the meaningful, grammatical sentences in the language they are studying.

 Although the informal presentation of some transformations and phonological rules may help a student to master some aspects of a foreign language, undue emphasis on formal rules and the elements of a linguistic description of a language will merely enable the student to learn about the language, and knowing about a language is quite different from knowing the language itself.

All languages are systematic. When we learn a language, we are learning a system – creating an internal grammar.

True language learning is a process that necessarily involves errors. As children and adults are exposed to samples of a language, they form hypotheses about the language. Frequently, the initial hypotheses are inadequate, failing to recognize the limits of a particular rule or the exceptions to the rule.

One result of this is the kind of overgeneralization revealed so often in the speech of children. The study of errors made by foreign language learners reveals much about the process of language learning and the factors that affect this process. One of the chief contributions of linguistics to the field of foreign language learning, therefore, is the area of error analysis.

 Errors must be distinguished from mistakes. Errors are defined here as systematic deviations from the foreign language and are due to the emerging system that the language learner is constructing (usually, but not always, in a subconscious, internalized way). In this sense, errors are reflections of the student’s developing linguistic competence in the foreign language.

Linguists sometimes refer to this systematic, but incomplete, emerging competence as an approximative system or an interlanguage. Both terms reflect the view that in acquiring another language, learners are constructing a system different from their native language but not yet identical to the system of the foreign language.

In contrast to errors, mistakes are random deviations, unrelated to any system, and instead representing the same types of performance mistakes that might occur in the speech or writing of a native speaker (e.g., slips of tongue or failure to produce correct subject-verb agreement in a long, complicated sentence).

The analysis of errors reveals several factors that play a role in foreign language learning. For adults, approximately one-third of the errors that occur are due to differences between the native language of the student (the source language) and the foreign language being learned (the target language). For example, adult native speakers of English who are learning French often make errors in the use of certain French verb forms called subjunctives. 

Either they fail to use the subjunctive forms in appropriate sentences or they overgeneralize and use the subjunctive where it is not appropriate. This error occurs because English has very few subjunctive forms (the use of were, rather than was, in If I were a millionaire is an example of a subjunctive verb form).

Errors due to differences between the source language and the target language systems frequently can be predicted (before they actually occur) by means of a contrastive analysis: a comparison of the linguistic systems of the source and target languages.

Contrastive analysis generally serves as the basis for the language teaching materials and techniques of the audio-lingual method, where emphasis is placed on those potential problem areas in which the source language and the target language differ.

Since the languages are considered merely as sets of habits in this approach, it seems to follow that the long-established habits of the source language will create linguistic interference when the student attempts to use the new habits of the target language. In other words, the old linguistic habits may interfere with the proper use of the new habits.

In this view, the problem areas where such interference might occur because of differences between the two linguistic systems must be practiced extensively in order to strengthen the new responses. Of course, where source and target language are similar in some respect, it is expected that the learner will have little difficulty with the target forms, and, therefore, extensive practice will be necessary.

The remaining two-thirds of the errors made by adult foreign language learners cannot be explained as interference or predicted by contrastive analysis. For example, some errors may be due to a universally valid difficulty factor. Complex embedded sentences are more difficult to master than simple sentences, no matter what source and target languages are involved.

Systematic errors also arise due to the nature of the language learning situation and the psychological strategies used by learners. Here we find the overgeneralizations and incomplete rule applications noted in child language acquisition.

The specific materials and teaching techniques used to present the target language may themselves be a source of errors. Students Learning Spanish may encounter adjectives only in a position after nouns in their first few weeks of instruction.

 They may then make the error of saying un hombre grande rather than un gran hombre when they mean ‘a great man’; un hombre grande generally means “a big man” (“big” in size). The student has no way of knowing that a small set of Spanish adjectives occur before, not after, the noun, usually with a difference in meaning and sometimes (as with grande/gran) with a difference in form. Many times, several of these factors interact and it is not possible to isolate a single cause for a particular error.

Error analysis is a relatively new approach to the understanding of foreign language learning. There are surely many causes of errors that are still unrecognized. Even at this point, however, implications for materials and methods are emerging.

Foremost among these is the fact that errors in foreign language learning are not only natural but possibly may constitute necessary stages as learners progress from their partial, approximative system to the complete and correct system of the target language.

This does not mean that materials should be designed to lead to errors but that it may be unnatural and even harmful to the learning process if materials are so carefully structured that errors cannot occur.

Julia S. Falk