What is Language?

by John Pereira
(Kyoto, Japan)

What Is Language?

In this short, informal article I'd like to talk about what is intrinsic to language per se, that is language as we usually understand the term with no reference to the evolution of or processes in the brain. I would also like to invite readers to send me some feedback.
As I see it, language has four dimensions, which are discussed below in no particular order of importance since all are necessary for both written and spoken communication.
First, and most obvious, are the building blocks of spoken and written language - grammar (or, if you prefer, structure), nouns, verbs, syntax, punctuation, and such like.
Second is content, without which language - spoken or written - cannot exist! Sometimes 'content' is specialized and at other times rather ordinary.
Third is the aesthetic aspect of language which involves choices, for we choose to speak or write in a certain way. The artistic value of drama, poetry, oratory, and so on, is to be found in non-literal meaning. A sage once said that 'the problem of literature is that the meaning is not on the page,' to which we might add in this age of the Internet or on the screen.
To decipher this non-literal type of language, the dictionary or a computer can take us only so far, which is not far enough ... or even in the wrong direction, as was the case when a computer program translated a Biblical expression - 'The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak' - into Russian as something like 'The vodka is great but the meat is lousy!'
While the computer can be useful in teaching/learning some aspects of language, for example pronunciation, it should be remembered that it has serious limitations, such as not being able to convey non-literal meaning. Overusing computers can also give learners and teachers distorted ideas or false impressions about language, especially if they are not in the habit of reading literature.
Literature itself ought to be in the curricula even for university programs devoted mainly to the study of language because not to do so would prevent students from developing their critical faculties and aesthetic sensibilities, which are crucial to language study. Literature is, after all, the highest point of language, and beautiful language is what the aesthetic dimension is all about! As Oscar Wilde once said about literature: 'It's not what you say but how you say it!'
Also a part of the aesthetic dimension is usage or appropriateness. This involves getting the right word, phrase, sentence or expression in proper context.
The fourth dimension includes the forms of a language. Just as a temple is designed differently from a house or restaurant, because of differences in function, so too is a poem different from a business letter, a short story from an essay, and so on.
We, university teachers, need to teach our students all four dimensions of language. The students have already had at least six years of language instruction — mostly grammar and vocabulary — by the time they arrive at the university portal. Not to do so is to have a language curriculum that does not sufficiently expose students to what language is really all about, to language in its entirety. And this, I suspect, is the main cause of the re-invention of the wheel every decade or so in the field of language teaching. We need to go beyond the usual approach, of what teachers would like to teach or the learners need, to also enquire into the nature of language itself, so we can offer university students the whole of language, and not just bits and pieces which change every few years according to some academic or administrative fashion. To do anything less than this is to rob our students of the richness of language and, for us teachers, to live in delusion.
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Mar 03, 2010
by: Kevin Burns

Thanks John great article and thanks for posting!

May 29, 2009
by: Anonymous

Thanks for this!

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