The study of Language

The study of Language

Our everyday encounters with language are so natural and so extensive that we rarely consider language as an object of sufficient interest to warrant study.

 Language is always there, and we make use of it automatically, often without any conscious effort. All human beings have known and used a language since childhood.

On the surface, there is nothing particularly interesting about so commonplace a phenomenon as human language. In fact, it is widely believed that, because everyone knows a language, everything about language is known. Yet, this is far from true.

Since the use of language is so natural to all people, it may seem that language itself must be quite simple, perhaps consisting of many words but involving only a few principles that serve to control pronunciation and the organization of these words into sentences.

However, investigation of any human language demonstrates that a language is an extremely complex, highly abstract, and infinitely productive system linking meaning with sounds. We all know the system of our native language, but this knowledge, although constantly in use, lies far below our consciousness.

We may be able to describe particular sentences that we hear and we are certainly able to produce and understand an unending variety of sentences, but the foundation of these abilities is a body of knowledge about our language that we cannot readily explain. Observing an activity, even participating in it, is not equivalent to understanding it.

Many people, for example, are able to work out arithmetic problems with large numbers, without being able to describe the mental processes they have used to in arriving at the answer.

It is possible to be a skillful driver and yet be unable to describe the mechanical functioning of an automobile or the neurophysiological basis for one’s own physical actions (such as steering or braking) and mental decisions (such as when to steer or brake).

Similarly, we speak and comprehend sentences with little or no awareness of the mental and physical processes involved in language.

The goal of linguistics -the scientific study of language- is to describe languages and to explain the unconscious knowledge all speakers have of their knowledge. Science does not consist merely of the observation and description of phenomena, although these are the two activities of the scientist that are most obvious to the outsider.

Every science, including linguistics, seeks to discover the general principles which underlie the variety of observable facts. In human language, the factual data are almost overwhelming, although linguistics has made substantial progress in describing the explaining many of the characteristics of language.

Every human being is capable of producing or understanding an infinite number of possible sentences in his or her language. Each day, we encounter sentences we have never seen or heard before, and yet we understand them and don’t even notice that they are new.

 We speak, but usually we are not aware of the movements of our tongue, lips, or other parts of the mouth or throat involved in the production of sounds. Given a set of sentences, our knowledge of English leads up to a judgment about which sentences follow the normal patterns of our language and which do not; we can determine when a sentence has more than one meaning or when several sentences all have the same meaning.

These and many other facts about language require an explanation. What is it that speakers of a language know? What kind of knowledge underlies our daily use of language? When we hear speech, all that really reaches our ears is noise; what do we know that enables us to interpret this noise as the expression of meaning?

Such questions form the basis of the linguist’s investigation of human language.      

Julia S. Falk