What is universal grammar and why does it matter to world language teachers? This post will give a brief overview of some of the more important linguistic theories that matter to world language teachers.
Before Universal Grammar, Let’s Define Language
What is Language?
Well, the first question that we really need to ask is, what is language? We can’t really answer this. We all know what it’s not. And that really tells us a lot. Language is something that’s very intertwined and deeply woven into our culture. We also carry very strong opinions about it.
Have you heard some of these before?
- French is romantic.
- Ain’t is sloppy.
- Aks versus ask is lazy.
- Slang is cool.
- Chinese is hard.
- Writing is more perfect than speech.
All of those, by the way, are false! The reason that we need to understand this connection is that we as language teachers are uniquely equipped to do some real work in our schools.
Why Linguistics Matters so Much to World Language Teachers
Understanding the mechanics of language equips language teachers more than anyone else in the building to shield our students from linguistic discrimination.
We have a lot of responsibility on our shoulders here. Language is so complex that people spend their entire lives studying language and becoming linguists. It carries culture and identity. It both empowers and disenfranchises people, I’m sure you can think of some instances where both of those are true. It allows certain people access to opportunities, maybe work or social. You can think about examples of this in both the US and beyond.
Linguistics Definition of Language
Language is complex: humans speak a mostly complete mother tongue before age five but we can’t explain how. Or how we can’t easily learn a new one past puberty just tells you how complex it is. The majority of the globe is multilingual, more than half of the world’s population speaks multiple languages. We’re not going to be able to fully understand all the parts of the engine, we can only peek under the hood and look at a couple of parts.
This suggests that there’s something very complex happening under the hood. “We know the rules of English word order, even if we can’t define these rules, any more specifically than to say that we just know them.”
- Source: Linguistics for Everyone
This is a quote from linguistics for everyone, which is the book that I use to create most of the ideas in this presentation, I’ll leave a link for you here. But here’s an example. We all know what language is not. And that really tells us a lot.
Look at this little example sentence that I give you here:
“Short too this is haircut.”
Right now, you are mentally rearranging those words to be:
“This haircut is too short.”
Here is the best way that I can define language for you. Because I told you it’s a very complex concept, it is not something that fits in like some sort of Wikipedia definition.
6 Design Features of Language
We got to go to the scientists for this. So, let’s look at Charles Hacket.
We are going to look at his study from 1960, ‘6 Design Features of Language’. His theory is that a form of communication needs all six of these properties in order to be considered a language:
- Duality of Patterning
So when you think about other forms of communication: traffic lights, body language, all forms of animal communication…they all have one of these aspects. But in order to be a language, they need to have all six.
So far, with the body of research that has been conducted on animals, we’ve not found a single form of communication that yet has all six, some have come close. There are some in both dolphins and certain species of monkeys that are pretty close. But they don’t have all six. There’s one in bees, that’s like crazy close.
The first one is semanticity. That means that specific signals can be matched with a specific meaning. So if you look at the language of sign language, I want you to remember here that language doesn’t need to have sounds, it just needs to have all of these features.Sign language is a perfect example. Sounds are not a part of any of these features. In sign language, each sign has meaning and they can all be matched with that specific meaning.
Arbitrariness is that there’s no logical connection between the symbols and their meaning. So think about hieroglyphics, like there’s a connection between what a lot of the images look like and what they mean. But not all of them. Right? And, for example, the word dog that doesn’t look or sound like a dog.
Discreteness is the idea that messages in a system are made up of smaller, repeatable parts. Look at the word smaller right there, you’ve got the SMA, R, where it’s broken apart into syllables that you can repeat, and recombine into new things. So words break up into syllables. In sign language, you have multiple movements that you can break apart and recombine into new things. That’s the idea of discreteness. They’re all made up of small parts.
Displacement is the idea that we can describe things that aren’t here right now. Like right now we’re talking about an abstract idea. Language is not something that you can touch, right? So it’s something that’s not currently in the room, it’s displaced. It also usually can describe the past or future, this actually doesn’t happen the same way in all languages. But we can describe past or future. It also has to do with space, like something that’s here, or we can describe something that’s not currently in the room.
#5 Productivity (in Linguistics)
Productivity, this is my favorite one, users can understand and create completely original utterances, meaning that all of the sentences that I am making for you, I have never heard before. All of these are my own original thoughts. They have been recombined. I’ve heard the words individually before. But these are my sentences, my thoughts, my words that are being recombined in their own order, it is uniquely mine. That’s the idea of productivity. I don’t need to hear somebody else’s sentence in order for me to create my own thoughts. That’s the idea of productivity, we can make our own language basically completely original ideas.
#6 Duality of Patterning
Duality of patterning this one is the hardest one to understand. It’s a large number of meaningful utterances that can be recombined in a systematic way, from a small number of discrete parts. It’s really easy to mix this idea up with discreteness. But what it really has to do is how you make new words. So think of the word unbreakable. Unbreakable is made up of four syllables but the root idea is the word break. Able suffix on prefix. So the duality of patterning is the idea that you can use meaningful utterances to make new things, those discrete parts, you can break them apart and tap them like Legos to make new things master-builder style.
This is how you define language. That’s what I mean by it’s not just something that you can just Wikipedia. It needs to have all six of these things in order to be considered a form of communication. And so far, that’s human communication.
Universal Principles of Language
Here are some universal principles of every language:
- Every language has subjects and predicates
- They also have nouns and verbs
- Every language, dialect, and pidgin also has a subset of sounds.
- What that means is there’s a selection of sounds from a much wider possible group of sounds that humans can make that can be used for language. We can make all kinds of different sounds, but we only use certain sounds in order to make the language that we’re speaking.
- Lastly is organization. We have similar ways of categorizing meaning distinctions in each language.
Universal Grammar Definition
Universal Grammar is this set of linguistic rules that are common to all languages. They’re very simplified, very, very simplified. But those are the set of linguistic rules common to all languages. They are hypothesized to be a part of human cognition.
Now, I’m going to quote my boy BVP. Bill VanPatten often compares this idea of hypothesized universal grammar to the idea of gravity. Gravity is technically hypothesized.
Universal Grammar and Noam Chomsky
Chomsky came up with this one, like a while back, and nobody’s been able to disprove it. And honestly, the more that we look into it, the more it looks like it’s real. So let me give you some of that proof.
Proof for Universal Grammar – Poverty of the Stimulus
Here’s the real truth. All humans learn five features of grammar. Not just morphology, and not just syntax, all five features. They learned that perfectly as their native language, phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, all that good stuff.
They learn that regardless of where they are raised, and how they are raised, they all learn it by the same age, give or take a few months, it happens by the same age. If you are developmentally on track, you will master your language by around age six. Isn’t that crazy? It doesn’t matter what language you speak, you will master it by age six-ish.
This is poverty of the stimulus – ” the argument that our experience far underdetermines our knowledge and hence that our biological endowment is responsible for much of the derived state.” Source: Oxford Handbook Online Abstract on Poverty of the Stimulus
So what does that mean? It means that we are probably tackling language learning with the same equipment. We all have the same thing under the hood. Even though it’s processing language differently, and we’re getting a different output, kind of like driving a car, right? Like we all might go at different speeds, and our cars might look different. But on the inside, we all technically have a similar engine. And here’s a quote from our boy Chomsky, just so you can see exactly what he’s talking about:
“It’s a component of the human mind, physically represented in the brain, and part of the biological endowment of the species.” – Noam Chomsky
So think of it this way. It’s a lot like learning how to walk.
Universal Grammar is Instinctual
It’s instinctual. It’s like how many birds learn how to migrate, they have an internal compass, we know that a lot of them can read certain magnetic fields, but we don’t exactly know how. But we see those birds tracing those magnetic fields going from north to south, south to north. We don’t fully understand that migration, but we know that it exists because we can see the pattern. That’s what universal grammar is.
The On-Off Switch
The on-off switch is the idea for linguistic parameters that we have some on-off settings of universal grammar principles. The universal principles, subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs, those body of sounds that we selectively choose from, and the organization of sound and meaning.
Those principles, we have an on-off switch for which ones we’re going to use, at what time. This is the proposed difference between languages. So here’s the thing: we all have these properties no matter what languages we speak. And the idea is that in our brains, there’s a little on-off switch for certain features. So all languages could have the same features. It just depends on whether we turn the switch on or off.
Final Thoughts on Universal Grammar
In conclusion, you can see that understanding just a few principles of linguistics will guide you better as you design instruction for students. Although it’s rad, you don’t necessarily need a full dissertation on linguistics. Just enough to make sure you know the difference between good practice and outdated practice.
This is the number #1 reason that understanding universal grammar is important for world language teachers. It throws much of traditional practice out the window – like the idea that we can provide all of the necessary tools for students to learn a language in a classroom environment, or the idea that some learners are more capable than others based on previous school performance or grades. That’s just nonsense when you look at universal grammar.
What is really true is that the human brain is wired to learn language, albeit at different rates, and with motivation being the biggest factor in how far a learner past age ten chooses to progress. What does universal grammar teach you about what needs to happen in classrooms?
More Posts on Comprehensible Input, Research, and Linguistics
Dive into the world of second language acquisition with these other posts for teachers:
- The Research Behind Comprehensible Input
- Redefining Spanish Grammar: What Teachers and Students Need to Know
- What is Comprehensible Input?
- The Role of French Grammar in Second Language Acquisition
- Second Language Acquisition
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