Does Language Emerge?
English (or any other language people speak) is hopelessly unsuited to serve as our internal medium of computation.
Stephen Pinker – The language instinct
People can be forgiven for overrating language. Words make noise, or sit on a page, for all to hear and see. Thoughts are trapped inside the head of the thinker. To know what someone else is thinking, or to talk to each other about the nature of thinking, we have to use – what else, words!
Does language emerge? And what exactly does that mean? Sugata Mitra defines emergence as the appearance of a property not previously observed as a functional characteristic of the system. Meddings and Thornbury (Teaching Unplugged) define emergence as “the idea that certain systems are more than the sum of their parts and that a small number of rules or laws can generate systems of surprising complexity”. All right, then. Why is it that I am writing about this? Well, Karenne Sylvester has published a blog post asking fellow bloggers to share their views regarding dogme in response to some challenges she is putting forward every Thursday. This is the bit she used as a basis to encourage us all to post an answer:
If learners are supplied with optimal conditions for language use, and are motivated to take advantage of these opportunities, their inherent learning capacities will be activated, and language – rather than being acquired – will emerge.
I guess the more meaningful teachers make language use, the easier it will be for learners to recall it. Successful, long-lasting learning is meaningful and personal. Needless to say, I do believe that people learn in different ways – one man’s meat is another man’s poison. However, I must say I really like the sentence that Karenne wrote on her blog post, which was taken from Teaching Unplugged. I’ll even go further and say that I agree with it.
It’s not an easy thing for teachers to provide learners with the optimal conditions for learning – I guess it’s even difficult for anyone to define what these optimal conditions are. We may, however, give it a try. When I think of optimal conditions for language use, I think of any kind of setting that poises no threat to the learner or language user. This may come from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – basic needs, etc. But this might be too abstract for some. How about going for the affective aspect of learning?
If our learners are put in a situation in which they feel they may speak freely without the fear of being misunderstood, and if they feel the classroom is a safe environment for them to make mistakes, this classroom might be considered, as much as possible, a place that offers optimal conditions for language use. Learners have got to pass the affective feedback in order to receive cognitive feedback, as Brown has illustrated quite well.
If learners feel they’re in a place where risks can be taken, well, it’s only fair that they feel a tad more confident and motivated to speak. This motivation to utter anything, however, depends a lot on the value of the learning activity that’s going to be carried out by the teachers. At this moment, it’s paramount that the teacher knows the group he or she is teaching. It’s only by knowing your audience that you can cater for them successfully. Fortunately, there’s one thing pretty much all human beings enjoy doing – engaging in conversation. Granted, not all of them like talking about the same things, but if you find out what ticks them, they’ll become chatterboxes.
We use language to hold conversations. We only speak because we want to have a conversation, regardless of the final purpose of such a conversation might be – finding out something about the person you’re talking to, persuading your interlocutor, apologising, making excuses, learning something, etc. If there’s no need to have a conversation, we pretty much eliminate the need for language, don’t we? Well, if this is so, we’ve got to learn how to say what we want to say in a way that our interlocutor understands, and we usually “learn” first what is meaningful to us. How many teenage girls have already learned how to say, “I love you” in at least nine different languages at a certain time in their lives? Why do they do so? Because it’s meaningful for them at that specific moment.
If teachers go out with their adult learners to have a class outside the boundaries of the classroom, it is amazing how much language learners remember from such an activity. I have already witnessed that. And I would say that, in that particular moment, they were experiencing optimal conditions for language use in a meaningful setting that motivated them to talk to one another using a language they were all still learning.
I have one more anecdote to share before I finish this. This happened to my dad when he was travelling in Europe, more specifically in Germany. He had never studied German, but he could speak lots of different languages: Russian, Romenian, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, French, English, and Portuguese. When they got to Germany, a local spoke to them in German, to which he promptly answered in German. He was stratled by his reply, as he never knew he could speak German – but there it was.
Is this a fact of language emerging? Or is it just the complicated intricacies of our language generating machine that we still don’t know much about at work? Language emerges in a way that we witness a learner who’s never studied conditionals, for instance, being able to utter a correct sentence using such structure. How did it happen? He’s probably been exposed to it before, or maybe his brain simply tried out a certain structure based on previous knowledge. The fact is that there was the need for a certain sentence, and the brain simply took care of it.
Language can be taught, it can be learned, consciousness awareness is also an important aspect to be taken into account, but language also emerges. Learners will go beyond the bits and pieces that they’ve been taught and will be able to come up with something original as long as we teach them it’s OK to try. It is language interaction that fosters language learning, not exposure alone. And interaction asks for originality, it asks for more than what was taught. It asks for a certain drive to speak and manipulate the language, which subsequently emerges naturally.
Will I ever change my mind? Oh, probably! Perhaps even after some persuasive comments to this post, but so far this is what I believe in.
More posts in response to this question:
- Willy Cardoso – Emergence
- Sabrina De Vita – Fear of the unknown
- Cecília Coelho – Nature emerges…naturally. Does Language?
- Nick Jaworski – An Emergent Curriculum
- Mike Harrison – Sometimes a prop is really the best thing
- Candy Von Ost – What does it mean to say language emerges?
- Anne Hodgson – Dogme – Schmogme
- Sue Lyon Jones – Unanswered questions that continue to dogme…
- David Warr – For those who know…