What is Linguistics Knowledge?
A discussion on Fromkin, Vand Rodman, R. (1983) An Introduction to Language (3rd edition). Holt, Rhinehart and Einston (pp 4-17)
This paper was written in 1997 for the subject of Introduction to Applied Linguistics, taught by Carol Lethaby.
What does it mean to know a language?
Anyone who knows a language must be able to speak and understand in order to communicate with others. This means that one must have the capacity to produce sounds (which carry a certain meaning), and to understand and interpret the linguistic codes in the sounds produced by others. However, knowing a language goes beyond that, for even the simplest conversation requires a profound knowledge of how language rules functions, and how words are related to one another as they form meanings.
Which factors must be known in order to know a language?
Language, as the association of signs that allows communication, comprises several factors that constitute the most important part of a language’s core knowledge.
Every language has a structure, a determinate phonetic system, a lexicon array, and a rationale behind the way it semantically groups its terms. For example, what Spanish speakers might find common in their use of subjunctive forms, might have a completely different vision in Chinese; the range of qualifying adjectives for snow might be limited in certain languages while certain languages spoken in tundra habitats might possess several dozens to describe snow. These factors must be taken into consideration to communicate coherently when required, to understand a sentence’s meaning in the context where it was uttered, and to comprehend why people are using the structures and terms they are using.
Sounds play a very important role in language, because of the fact that they are carriers of meaning of concepts. However, there is no relationship between the sounds (words) and their actual representation (object). This means that the sounds of words are only given meaning by the language in which they exist. This agreement many times is the result of the social groups that inhabit a particular region; of the interaction between several groups, as well as migration. In part, this explains why the modern variety of English has incorporated words from French, Spanish and Japanese. Thus, while sounds for words like ‘amigo’ had no relevance nor meaning in the American English context, nowadays it is a words that, when uttered, conveys the same meaning as it does in its original language: Spanish.
Moreover, one has to have an idea abut the form and structure of a language, in order to produce words in an adequate sequence so that meaning in transmitted according to the conventions of the language one is speaking. Word meaning. Spelling and phonology are also equally relevant when utilizing a language appropriately in one of its respective formats. In written form, for instance, misspelling a word might cause a term’s meaning to change (or to fall into a different variety of English: color vs, colour); and if someone mispronounces a word confusion might arise, for example when not being aware of the different ‘I ’ sounds in ship and sheep. To add more, tonality is an element of utmost importance in some Asian languages such as Mandarin or Thai, where tones determine meaning and sense in a word.
Besides form, structure, spelling and phonetics, anyone wanting to learn a language must also understand that possessing an extensive knowledge on the culture(s) where the language is spoken. The concept of culture in this particular case goes beyond geographical boundaries for a country does not determine the limits for the language that is spoken there. E.g. Spanish is spoken in the USA; Punjabi is spoken in the UK; Flemish is spoken in Flanders, Belgium, and each municipality within this province speaks a different variety due to their cultural and historical background.
Possessing a well founded cultural knowledge, will enable individuals to use and interpret language more successfully, for not every word or phrase that is spoken possesses a literal meaning and, many times, their concrete connotation has nothing to do with the actual words. Added to this, competencies such as comparison, contradiction, and figuration (figurative meaning) must also be kept in mind, for language is a mutable instrument of communication that can adjust to situations and needs and is, therefore, multiplicative- not confined to specific versions and formats.
When aware of what one needs to take into account to know a language, one now has to keep in mind that the language one knows might differ from the language one actually puts into use. For this reason, competence and performance are key concepts that need to be taken into consideration in order to develop an understanding of the extent to which one is fully capable of living the language. Competence is the knowledge one has about the language (grammar, lexis, syntax, etc), and performance is the actual production of language.
One might say something that is grammatically inappropriate while possessing the knowledge to utter it correctly, and this does not mean that one lacks skills in terms of competence. Since linguistic knowledge cannot be simply and superficially observed and appreciated in one’s utterances, deciding so is complicated. Otherwise, how could mistakes committed by educated native speakers be explained?
Likewise, having an extensive linguistic knowledge guarantees the creation of an infinite number of sentences never before spoken; speakers can add qualifications in as many ways as adjectives, tenses and word combinations allow. Similarly, depending on how enriched one’s language has become as one interacts with other speakers, one will develop skills to be operational in situations and contexts that one might not have initially contemplated when one started learning a language.
Comprehending and utilizing a language, and knowing why one says what one says in the situation where one utters such statement is an indication of one’s understanding of human language. Knowing a language is more than knowing words and meanings; more than handling combinations of structures to transmit ideas and thoughts; and more than being familiar the reasons why expressions are put together in a particular way. Knowing a language also implies understanding the generation of new meanings and the ability to decode complex sets of concepts that are not necessarily literal or tangible.
Knowing a language transforms language speakers into instruments of construction and contribution; into agents that can take the knowledge recorded in the language to generate new dimensions of knowledge; and in allows speakers to distill degrees of truth and falsity in data in order to classify information. Thus, linguistic knowledge is not solely limited to language use and dominance, but also embraces world conceptions and is, clearly, a determining factor in the evolution of human communication and the creation of new knowledge.