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Why You Need to Learn Linguistics – And Apply It to Your Language Study

“It just seems to me that being able to demonstrate that certain things are possible seems to be the first step that might actually encourage other individuals to want to do something similar with respect to some performance that they are passionate [about] or interested in improving.” -K Anders Ericsson

One of the most powerful effects of learning linguistics is to show you that something that you see, at the outset, as impossibly complex and unrelentingly difficult ends up being something that you can master. Not the person who was born speaking the language, not the person who lived for 2 years in France, but you yourself. You yourself can learn a language. Any language. And with the help of linguistics, you will no longer be stabbing in the dark, trying to learn by mere exposure, but rather approaching the language systematically – a language is, after all, a system – and figuring it out from the ground up, and with the help of professional scaffolding. Linguistics is powerful, and it will be powerful for you.

Why We Shouldn’t Learn Like Children Do

For quite a few years now, there has been the idea floating around that in order to learn a new language well, we must approach it like babies learning their first language: no grammar, no verb conjugation tables, etc. This idea, often coupled with the insistence on immersion in the foreign language, has its merits. By engaging with the language, you are using it in the real world, whether it be in your home country or in a complete immersion environment, and this real-world use is very valuable. By practicing communicating in the language, you build the pathways in your brain that will help you to – you guessed it – use it in the real world. This includes the speed with which you must recall information, and developing your ear for the language in real-paced conversation, rather than with a slower-than-normal-speed instructor or tape. But though the pros of learning a language in this way are numerous, they are not enough, and what’s more, they can be accentuated by learning about the different parts of the language in a formal setting.

The six parts of any language are phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics (coming soon: you can read about them here). The knowledge of each of these can come to you over time by mere exposure (and concerted effort in paying attention), but this acquisition, in the case of a second language, can be slow, incomplete, and often inaccurate. Here’s how linguistics can change that.

Consideration #1: Speed

When learning a new language by making your way through daily life, interacting in the language, you are exposing yourself to many instances of the use of a language. What works for babies is that these experiences convert into rule formations that they then begin to use when they start speaking. This is the same thing that can happen for us as adults. The problem is, we already have a preconception of how the language works, based on how our first language operates. Babies take quite some time to begin using their language in constructive ways, and this will be even truer for adults. When learning a second language, an adult will often latch on to a word that they take to be correct the way they’re saying it, when in reality, they’re using it incorrectly. Undoing this learning then takes time – first to realize the error, and then to re-learn the term or grammatical rule. When learning only by interacting with those around us, we are prone to a lot of this sort of work.

But if we take linguistics as a base, we can work from there up with fewer mistakes and less correction time. We can also learn new concepts more quickly, fitting them into our linguistically-minded framework for language from the beginning. Simply put, by working with linguistics to learn our new language, we develop the correct kinds of categories for our new tongue, and as we go, we can throw new information into the correct category more easily, making our progress in the language more rapid.

Consideration #2: Accuracy

One important thing that plays a role in our learning of a second language (L2) is what I call our L1 Filter. As I’ve written about here, our L1 Filter is the glass through which we see our world, due to the nature of our first language. This filter has far-ranging effects, and more than anything, it affects the way we believe our L2 can operate.

An example of this can be taken from the sounds of French versus those of English. In French, there is no sound /ð/, which is the sound at the beginning of English “the”. Because of the lack of this sound in French, many native speakers of French who are learning English have trouble hearing the /ð/ sound, and therefore substitute a different sound in where /ð/ is needed. For French speakers, this happens to typically be the sound /z/, which is a sound from their native language that closely resembles the foreign /ð/. And this is not an anomaly among learners of the world’s languages. Speakers of English have a very difficult time reaching the Spanish /a/, rather than substituting in /ɑ/ or /æ/. It can be a difficult part of learning a foreign language.

But with linguistics, it can be different. First and foremost, the important thing is the metalinguistic recognition and acceptance of the fact that the sounds of our language are not the sounds of our target language. From there, we can begin to approach the foreign sounds as they are, and not route them through our L1 Filter. And this applies to all aspects of our new language: sentence structure, determiner use, honorifics, and all other pieces can be liberated from our preconceptions through linguistics. This, in turn, will cause for greater accuracy not only in our pronunciation, but in our use of the language in general.

Consideration #3: Completeness

Learning the language by mere exposure has the effect of lulling us into a false sense of security (especially when we don’t push ourselves to learn). I have seen many learners of English able to get by in their new language – just barely – in situations that are familiar to them. When they’re at the supermarket, the gas station, maybe at their child’s school, they are able to survive with what they have picked up simply by living in a country where English is the official language. But move them outside of those areas of social life, and they’re lost. They may think that they know the language well, but when a novel question is asked, they don’t have the tools to respond to it. Yes, they speak English, but they aren’t able to wield it like they wish they could.

This, again, is where linguistics steps in. Linguistics can help you to understand basic sentence structure, and how it corresponds to the structures found in the languages of the world; it can help you to understand the sounds that are being thrown at you, so that you can piece them together in a way that is meaningful in the new language; and it can provide you with an outline of morphological change, so that you can work out the pieces of a phrase more quickly. This information and more is the difference between just groping for the meaning that you want to get across, and knowing how – with proper structuring – to communicate effectively, so that your ideas are understood. It also gives you the tools necessary to decompose utterances and understand the parts of novel sentences, things you’ve never heard before, allowing you to not just understand what you’ve already been exposed to, but to quickly and effectively comprehend the meaning of something you have never been told before.

By understanding the language more completely, you will open yourself up to a greater variety and greater depth of experience in and with your target language.

Where to Start

I’m not suggesting that everyone become the next Noam Chomsky or Ferdinand de Saussure (although, believe me, the deeper you get into linguistics, the more fascinating it becomes). But I am suggesting that anyone who wishes to speak in tongues (in a non-religious sense) needs to pick up a basic understanding of each of the six parts of language, both in an objective context and in relation to their native language and the language they’re after.

To start your foray into linguistics, you can start with my mini-series, The Six Parts of Language, available soon.

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