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Assumptions and Approaches of Linguistics

By Shaozhong Liu
Guangxi Normal University, China
!" #o put it in your o$n $ords and in one sentence%
&efining language
'o$ $e understand and define language $ill largely determine ho$ $e are
to teach and learn it! And ho$ $e are to teach and learn it
$ill largely affect ho$ $ell $e can use it!
!"!( )hat is language*
#his sounds li+e a naive ,uestion! Naive, -ecause $e used to ta+ing things for
granted! .ur initial survey of /Ni chi guo le*0 resulted in (1 ans$ers! And similarly,
our experiences reveal that given the ,uestion /)hat is linguistics*0, $e are li+ely to
encounter t$o +inds of situations! 2irst, laymen do not even +no$ ho$ to give a
definition! Second, professionals try to define it from their o$n point of vie$, hence
none is satisfied $ith the other3s definition!
So it is very necessary for us to raise and ans$er the ,uestion /)hat is language*0 in
a serious and systematic manner!
!"! Laymen3s definitions
4444Language is a $hat $e do things $ith!
4444Language is $hat 5 thin+ $ith!
4444Language is used for communication!
4444Language is $hat 5 spea+ $ith!
4444Language is $hat 5 $rite $ith!
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!"!" 7edagogical definition of /language0
4444Language is a medium of +no$ledge!
4444Language is a medium of learning!
4444Language is part of one3s cultural ,uality!
4444Language is part of the many re,uirements for a future citizen!
4444Language is an element of ,uality education!
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!"!"! Lexicographical definition
#he $ord 9language3 means differently in different contexts%
 Language means $hat a person says or said! :!g!% What he says sounds
reasonable enough, but he expressed himself in such bad language that many
people misunderstood him! ;< concrete act of spea+ing in a given situation=
 A consistent $ay of spea+ing or $riting! :!g!% Shakespeare’s language,
Faulkner’s language ;< the $hole of a person3s language> an individual3s
personal dialect called idiolect(个人方言)
 A particular variety or level of speech or $riting! :!g!% scientific language,
language for specific purposes, English for specific purposes, trade language,
formal language, colloquial language, computer language!
 #he a-stract system underlying the totality of the speech ? $riting -ehavior of a
community! 5t includes everything in a language system ;its pronunciation,
voca-ulary, grammar, $riting, :!g!% the English language, the Chinese language,
children’s language, second language! Do you kno French*
 #he common features of all human languages, or t -e more exact, the defining
feature of human language -ehavior as contrasted $ith animal language systems
of communication, or any artificial language! :!g!% !e studies language! ;< 'e
studies the universal properties of all speech ? $riting systems, not @ust one
particular language!=
!"!8 Linguists3 responses
 'ence, there have -een dozens of definitions! )e3d li+e to cite some here!
4444Language, as $ell as the faculty of speech, $as the immediate gift of God! ;Noah
)e-ster, American &ictionary, (AA=
4444Language is the highest and most amazing achievement of the sym-olistic human
mind! #he po$er it -esto$s is almost inestima-le, for $ithout it anything properly
called /thought0 is impossi-le! #he -irth of language is the da$n of humanity! #he
line -et$een man and -eastB-et$een the highest ape and the lo$est savageBis the
language line! )hether the primitive Neanderthal man $as anthropoid or human
depends less on his cranial capacity, his upright posture, or even his use of tools and
fire, than on one issue $e shall pro-a-ly never -e a-le to settleB$hether or not he
spo+e! ;Susanne C! Langer, /#he Lord of Creation,0 2ortune, Danuary, (E88=
44445n his $hole life man achieves nothing so great and so $onderful as $hat he
achieved $hen he learnt to tal+! ;Ascri-ed to /a &anish philosopher0 in .tto
Despersen, Language, (E=
4444Fost people, as+ed if they can thin+ $ithout speech, $ould pro-a-ly ans$er,
/Ges, -ut it is not easy for me to do so! Still 5 +no$ it can -e done!0 Language is -ut a
garmentH But $hat if language is not so much a garment as a prepared road or groove*
5t is, indeed, in the highest degree li+ely that language is an instrument originally put
to uses lo$er than the conceptual plane and that thought arises as a refined
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interpretation of its content! #he product gro$s, in other $ords, $ith the instrument,
and thought may -e no more conceiva-le, in its genesis and daily practice, $ithout
speech than is mathematical reasoning practica-le $ithout the lever of an appropriate
mathematical sym-olism! ;:d$ard Sapir, Language, (E(=
4444Language, in its most important and characteristic aspect, is the reverse of $hat it
is generally supposed to -e! 5nstead of consisting of a -undle of la-els $hich name the
thing to $hich they are attached> and these things, li+e all else in the $orld, are
forever changing, and $ith them changes the meaning of the la-els! ;A! S! &iamond,
#he 'istory ad .rigin of Language, (EIE=
4444 Language is cognition!
4444Language is $hat $e perceive things $ith!
4444Language is our minds!
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!"!I Assessing definitions
 Language is a tool for human communication!
"es% it is for communication, and this tells the instrumental aspect or function of
language!
#o% it doe snot say anything a-out the defining features or properties of language,
and it does not exclude many other systems ;secret codes, traffic signals, for
example= performing the same function!
$mplications% Communication is -asically ver-al> and teaching means to teach
spea+ing and fluency is the ultimate goal!
 Language is a set of rules!
"es% it is true that language contains rules
#o% it says nothing a-out the function of language, it does not exclude the other
systems containing rules
$mplications% #eaching means to impart grammatical rules> and learning a
language is for the sa+e of learning it ;+no$ing as much +no$ledge as possi-le=
2.3.6 Jecommended definitions
 语言是人类特有的一种符号系统,当它作用于人与人的关系的时候,它是
表达相!"的#$%当它作用于人&'()*的关系的时候,它是+,
-.的/0%当它作用于12的时候,它是1234的56&789/:;
<=09/>?的有@90是语言作A相!"的#$的BC%DE与F类GHI
与JK,是"用语言作A+,-.的/0的BC%LMGN作G34O,是
语言作A34的56&78的BC9(PQR,SK语言T,(EE(, p!()
 Language is a system of ar-itrary vocal sym-ols used for human communication!
;%his is a definition that linguists seem to be in broad agreement about, because
this definition reflects some of the important characteristics of human language=
"es% #his definition does not appear to -e very original at first sight, -ut each
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$ord in it has -een chosen $ith great care to capture an important aspect of
language!
 system% language must -e a system, since elements in it are arranged according to
certain rules> they can3t -e com-ined at $ill or deli-erately> they can3t -e learned -y
parts> they must -e studied through fragments and facts, rather than the system $hich
is a relative and a-stract concept that represents the totality of parts, -ut $hich does
not come -efore the parts are thoroughly examined and understood! 5f language $ere
not systematic, it could not -e learned or used consistently! 2or instance, $e don3t
hear people say the follo$ing in :nglish%
K bkli ;as a possi-le $ord=
K !e table a green ;as an accepta-le sentence=
 arbitrary% Language is ar-itrary in the sense that there is no intrinsic connection
-et$een the $ord pen and the thing $e use to $rite $ith! #he fact that different
languages have different $ords for it ;Lpen= spea+ strongly for the ar-itrary nature of
language! :!g!% bi ;U= in Chinese, plume ;crayon= in 2rench, plumo in :speranto!
 symbolic% #he sym-olic nature of language means that $ords are associated $ith
o-@ects, actions, ideas -y convention! .r $hat $e can read from -et$een the lines are
only literal messages, and utterance meanings should -e inferred from contexts! :!g!%
& rose by any other name ould smell as seet ;Sha+espeare% Jomeo and Duliet=
 'ocalic% By this it is meant that language has the primary medium in sound no
matter ho$ $ell developed are their $riting systems! ;(= &ll e'idence shos that
riting systems came much later than the spoken forms and that they are only
attempts to capture sounds and meaning on paper! =%he fact that children acquire
spoken language first before they can read or rite also indicates that language is
primarily 'ocal!=
 human% language is human4specific, very different from the communication
systems other forms of life, such as -ird song and animal cries, possess!
!"!M Significance in forming a self definition
 #he purpose of scientific research is to perceive the underlying la$s, adapt to and
change the $orld! 'o$ can $e possi-ly actualize the ultimate goal* )e have to
understand $ho $e are, $hat capacity $e have, and ho$ $e might utilize and
enrich our capacity for that purpose! #his is an other4and4self relationship! 5t3s
paradoxical that $e have to, or $e are proving this, that $e depend on a
preliminary understanding of other in order to see self! #he study of language
serves this direction!
 5t is a fact that $e fail to provide ready ans$ers for things or events at hand! 'ere
are t$o examples% Air is around us, no matter $here $e are and $herever $e go!
)ithout air, $e $ill not survive! 'o$ever, the importance of air is not felt
-ecause $e do survive! 5 thin+ if air is in $ant or it is polluted $e are easily feel
the change of it! And in accordance $e -egin to revolt and do something to
maintain it!
#he same thing is true a-out our language! Dust as air is all around us, $e
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live in a $orld of $ords! 'ardly any moment passes $ithout someone tal+ing,
$riting, or reading! 5ndeed, language is most essential to man+ind!
)hat is more, the significance of language -ecomes all the more evident
$ith the raise of civilization! (= Students are taught to learn another language
apart from his o$n native tongue! #hat is $hy it is true in saying that none of us
no$adays is merely a monolingual spea+er! 5n other $ords, $e are most
-ilingual spea+ers $hile polyglots are found very often among our pals ;Larry4
Smith, (EEM=! = :ven machines are 9learning3 to use human language in order to
facilitate or -oost social development!
Unfortunately, $e are not a-le to explain many things a-out our language,
not to say to give ready ans$ers for it! 2or example, $e do not for sure ho$ $e
ac,uire language and ho$ it is possi-le for us to perceive through language, nor
do $e understand precisely the relationships -et$een language and thought,
language and logic, or language and culture! Still less do $e +no$ ho$ language
originated!
.ne reason for our inade,uate +no$ledge of language is that $e as
language users ta+e too many things for granted! Language comes to every
normal person so naturally that fe$ of us need to stop and ,uestion $hat
language is, much less do $e feel the necessity to study it! As $e shall see as our
course goes on, language is far more complex than most people have pro-a-ly
imagined and the necessity to study it is far greater than some people may have
assumed!
 A +no$ledge of things usually $ell suggests ho$ $e approach them! 5t is exactly
the same thing, for instance, in language teaching and learning! 'o$ $e
understand language largely determines ho$ $e are to teach and learn it! 5t is
imperative for language teachers to formulate, upgrade and update their o$n
philosophy a-out language! 5t is never too much to emphasis the in4depth
comprehension a-out the nature of language!
!"!A Conclusions
#he definition, the design features and functions of language all strongly imply that
)e must try to -enefit from $hat $e are capa-le of -y language, and proceed $ith
our practices ;in teaching, learning, and research= in line $ith our findings a-out
language! #he ne$ curriculum reform in China3s foundational education, for instance,
is advocating lots of ideas! )e need to provide theoretical supports as $ell as
experimental outcomes!
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