more on

I shouldn’t pick on Steve Kaufmann, linguist extraordinaire, two days in a row, but I’m fascinated with this brand of pop linguistics (and yes, I would not probably go into this in such detail if Mr Kaufmann didn’t set himself up as some sort of linguistic representative). Today we have the following gem:

… So, once again, the key thing in language learning, more than pronunciation, more than grammar, more than critical thinking, more than a course on “academic writing”, is just getting the words and phrases right.

I also feel that people who are not good at reasoning in their own language will not do any better in a new language. A literate person in his/her own language has a big advantage in learning another language.

Literacy only confers an advantage if you’re trying to learn through literacy. I know plenty of people who don’t read or write but who speak multiple languages fluently.

The first paragraph is, of course, nonsensical. It is precisely the pronunciation and grammar that is involved in “getting the phrases right”. Well, to be precise, it’s a combination of this and adequate control of collocations and genre.


9 responses to “more on

  1. as well as the Oxford dictionary give the meanings of the word linguist as
    1) A person who speaks several languages fluently.
    2) A specialist in linguistics.

    I consider myself a linguist in first sense, and my website is dedicated to helping people become better linguists in the first sense above. I have no interest in linguistics, nor in linguists in the second sense above,none.

    To read more please come to my blog.

  2. As a lexicographer myself, I have no confidence in arguments made from dictionary definitions.

    Seriously, though, I’m surprised that you think the two are so mutually exclusive. I called you on a point of fact/proportion (the status of minority languages), a political pint (that you aim to help people speak other languages yet your site is one of the most language-unfriendly sites I’ve seen), another point of fact (the role of literacy in language learning) and a point of sense (that a sentence was inherently contrdictory). Doesn’t that imply that linguistics has something to say about your methods, whether or not you’re interested?

  3. A linguist to me is someone who speaks more than one language and this is also a definition recognized by most English dictionaries. The more languages a linguist speaks, the better the linguist. I suspect that a majority of people who study linguistics speak only one language well, and a majority of people who speak many languages well (like me) have no knowledge or interest in linguistics.

    As to your “points”, I made no mention of minority languages, but rather of minor languages. Our site has explanations in 10 languages, so while it is not perfect, it is hardly “one of the most language-unfriendly sites “you or anyone else has seen. I explained why The Linguist is useful in learning languages like the native languages of Canada, languages not yet contaminated by the efforts of linguistics experts, grammarians, lexicogrpahers and the like, so I will not repeat these explanations here. As to what you consider my self-sentence contradictory sentence, it only contradicts some of your pedantic prejudices but is not self-contradictory in my view.

  4. “I suspect that a majority of people who study linguistics speak only one language well, and a majority of people who speak many languages well (like me) have no knowledge or interest in linguistics.”

    That’s an empirical issue which could be tested. Are you trying to argue that people who study linguistics don’t come under your definition of ‘linguist’? So are you arguing from the basis of the dictionary definition or from your own intuition?

    See my point about data entry for why I called your site unfriendly to multilingualism.

    Perhaps you could explain precisely what you mean by First Nations languages not being ‘contaminated’ by these evil linguists, since some of these languages have a long descriptive tradition by both community insiders and outsiders. I saw no explanation of those views on your site so I would welcome some more explanation here.

    And finally, please tell me a) how it’s possible to “get the words and phrases right” in a language while making mistakes in grammar and pronunciation, and b) how it makes me prejudiced (against whom?) to take as a definition of fluency in a language the ability to produce accurate, spontaneous chunks of speech?

  5. Someone who studies linguistics is not necessarily a linguist in the first sense of being able to speak many languages well. He/she may or may not be. I suspect few are based on the people that I have met. On the other hand, very few of the polyglots that I know are linguistics experts.

    A site which has explanations in 10 languages may not be the most multilingual site on the web, but is not, as you said, one of the most linguistically unfriendly.

    The language traditions of the First Nations people in Canada are maintained by those people who still speak these languages. With a system like The Linguist, it will be easy for these people to pass on their knowledge and language traditions to a new group of learners, without university trained linguistic experts creating theoretical explanations about the structure of the language.

    Let’s deal with the only point that really matters. Is the deliberate study of grammar rules a good way to develop language fluency? My experience is that it is not the best way to acquire the ability to understand a new language and to learn to produce the language “correctly”, that is in conformity with standard usage. I, and our learners at have had more success using an approach based on a great deal of input of meaningful and appropriate level content, combined with an efficient method of learning and retaining new vocabulary. The computer can direct learners to content that is at just the right level of difficulty for optimum vocabulary accumulation. Examples of sentences that use these new words and phrases are accumulated for each learners from familiar content that learner is regularly listening to. Grammar explanations are kept to a minimum. Quizzes, drills and irrelevant dictionary examples are avoided. There is no role for a linguistics expert in this kind of learning.

  6. This is a very interesting debate. I find linguistics interesting in small doses, however when it comes to learning a language, grammar or linguistics are of little use. Language learning is mainly about learning new words and the way they are used to form sentences. Once a person gets a “sense” for the language, they will understand the grammar even without the ability to explain it.

    To understand how to use a computer you don’t need to know about software or microprocessors, the same it true with language and linguistics.

    At least, that’s how I see it :-)

    As for linguistics, I find that it can teach us about human society, for example, the fact that Romanian and Italian are related suggests that Romans established a country in south-eastern European lands some centuries ago.

  7. Anti-linguist experts

    We learn our native languages by imitation through a lot of reading and listening. So same is true for learning any language. Buying endless grammar books and going through monotonous “fill in the blank” excercises in them is not going to help me attain a great deal of fluency which is an ultimate goal of any new language learner. Please linguist experts don’t scare learners out of their wit by coming up with scary terms like allophone, collocation, phoneme, morpheme, subordinate and on and on… learning the meaning of such terms is not going to help them speak fluent English.
    Trust me, I have witnessed some learners who have learned English through reading and listening spoke better than those of who had a master degree in linguistics. The learning of any language is simple, expose yourself to it through reading and listening then use it through writing and speaking. That’s it but accumulating a great deal amount of input is neccessary in advance before producing some output.

  8. Anti-linguist experts

    To further add a line to my above post. I never learned English by learning grammar rules. I did through extensive listening and reading. I am an ESL learner who had never spoken with a native speaker yet but you can see that I am quite articulate in my thoughts. So Im debunking the myth of suggesting that people who go abroad can learn the language well and naturally. Students can do a better job by staying at their homes.

  9. Pingback: Anggarrgoon » Blog Archive » Some misc comments on linguists and linguistics

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