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Language: More Than Just Words

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Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Deb Roy's video, "The Birth of a Word," is truly extraordinary. The methods its author has developed offer new ways to examine and understand the complex business of first language acquisition (as well as glimpses of what language is more generally and how humans use it to become, and be, human). It is exciting to contemplate the ways in which those novel methods and materials will contribute to the thinking of linguists, as well as scholars in many other fields, about language and its development.

For me as a sociolinguist and pragmaticist, however, the video overlooks some critical aspects of what we know about language. (Sociolinguistics studies the relationship between the social status of speakers, e.g. their class, gender, power, race, and age, the linguistic forms they use, and how those linguistic choices are understood by others. Pragmatics studies the choices speakers make based on the interactional setting in which they are speaking, and how those decisions affect the speaker's interactions with others, decisions like whether and how to be direct or indirect; or to be polite, formal, or figurative, or not.) Roy's point that language form is learned in tandem with its learner's social situation is certainly correct, and just as certainly not new -- linguists have been studying that connection for most of the last half century.

Arguably, the language form that "The Birth of a Word" focuses on -- a word -- is possibly the form of language that least well illustrates the interconnection between form and social function. A word in isolation is without clear meaning or pragmatic function. It is highly ambiguous. "Water" by itself might mean any of the following: "Is that water?," "I want water," "Watch out for the water," "Give me that water," and more. Language is not the word; it is words connected by syntax (grammar), formed into sentences. It is no accident that a baby begins to use syntax around the time she abandons the egocentricity of infancy and moves into the social world of humanity. If we were not social creatures, we could be content with words alone. But in learning to string them together to produce larger units like sentences, conversational contributions, and narratives, we demonstrate our need to be sure the people we're talking to can understand what and why we're communicating. Syntax greatly limits ambiguity, a service speakers do for hearers, and thus is a recognition that language is above all a social activity.

Even if we were to confine our analysis to words alone, the word "water" might not be the best choice to show what a baby has to accomplish in order to become fully human. "Water" is the simplest kind of word to learn how to use, a concrete noun. It's easy to figure out its meaning and how to use it intelligibly. So it's not surprising that such words are normally the first a child learns. But more intriguing -- and much less studied -- is the question of how we learn other kinds of words, the ones that allow us to make our meanings clear to others by putting words in sentences: articles like "the" and "a," verb tenses and conjunctions - to name a few. A child can't see a "the" or an "and," but nevertheless learns how to use them. Again unsurprisingly, these words are the hardest to learn and the last to be added to the learner's repertoire. But until they are present in a child's speech, we do not see the child as fully communicatively competent. Here too, the acquisition of forms that are pragmatically, rather than purely semantically, relevant are crucial for the achievement of the social uses of language.

I very much hope that Roy continues his study until his son acquires full communicative competence. I am not sure if his methods can be as successful in studying the acquisition of "the" and "past tense" as they were for "water." But his video offers us a new and exciting tool to apply to what is still a vast and infinitely complicated enterprise.

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