What is language? Formal theories

The term formal theories of language usually refers to linguistic theories that stem from the work of Noam Chomsky on Universal Grammar, or the idea that there is an innate language mechanism in humans that allows us to learn and use language.  These theories are are also referred to as generative grammar, and are prominent in linguistic research in the United States.  As a results, they have informed a great deal of research on second language acquisition, as well as theories of teaching.  When the folk linguistic theories of language learning I discussed previously are contrasted with linguistic theories, these linguistic theories are most often formal theories.  From my perspective, there are three main implications for taking an approach to language learning and teaching informed by formal theories of language, and I discuss these below. 

1) Language learning occurs through the innate language learning mechanism (generative grammar).  Essentially, formal theories say that when we are exposed to language, it is processed by this mechanism, and if there is enough exposure, we will acquire it.  The implications for language teaching are that explicit instruction in grammar or other linguistic features does not lead to acquisition of these features.  Rather, the only way they can be acquired is through extensive exposure.  While some adherents of formal theories would conclude that this means there is no role for the language classroom or instruction, I think it is more common to focus on how the classroom can maximize exposure to the language to enable processing by the language learning mechanism.  This is the source of methods such as comprehensible input, based on the work of Stephen Krashen.  This is also the reasoning behind claims that adult language acquisition is not that different from child language acquisition.  

2) Language as an object of study can be separated from examples of humans using language.  This aspect of formal theories is primarily what distinguishes them from functional theories of language, which I’ll discuss in a future post.  The implication of this is that language has meaning outside of a particular social context, and for this reason an awareness of sociolinguistic or pragmatic features of language is considered additional to an awareness of sounds or grammatical features.  The implication for language teaching is that sociolinguistic or pragmatic awareness is considered an “advanced”, or “extra” skill, while the knowledge of sounds, vocabulary, or grammar is considered to be more basic.  

3) Language as an object of study can be meaningfully broken down into component parts. The implication of this point has more to do with the assessment of learning than learning itself—as noted in point one, following formal theories of language would not support the explicit teaching of these formal parts separately.  However, based on my understanding at least, examining component parts of language, such as vocabulary or grammatical features, can be used to assess the extent to which someone has acquired these features, and thus make claims about their overall proficiency.  A secondary implication is that there is a particular standard (usually that of the monolingual native speaker stemming from the nationalist ideology) against which use of these features can be compared.  

In my experience, like folk linguistic theories or nation state ideologies, the implications of formal theories of language for language learning and teaching are commonly presented in workshops and trainings, but their connections to specific theories or ideologies of languages are rarely made explicit.  In this way, we perpetuate certain theories of language through our language teaching practices without realizing it.  Although I certainly have theories I prefer over others, the most important thing to me is being aware of the connection between our beliefs about language and the way we teach it, and aware that there are multiple theories and ideologies of language from which we can choose.  





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