Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 2

Posted by Neal on September 6, 2010

In my last post I began reviewing Culicover and Hume’s Basics of Language for Language Learners, and got through Part 1 of the book, which deals with the sounds of foreign languages. In this post I cover Part 2, “Thinking Like a Native Speaker”, which gets into syntax and semantics. The payoff in these chapters is a bit more abstract than the payoff in Part 1. There, they gave concrete examples of how you could make sounds that at first seemed completely foreign, by using already-familiar gestures used in English sounds. In Part 2, they can’t really do that. But the fact is, even in Part 1, learning to make an actual foreign sound won’t help you, unless you happen to be learning a language that has that sound. All it really does is to give you a taste of what else is out there in terms of phonetics, and show how you might be able to handle it. The analogous exercises in Part 2 have you analyzing structures of English and other languages, in order to get a taste of what else is out there in terms of grammar.

Chapter 7, “The Work That Language Does”, begins by making a four-way distinction between a sentence’s content, its form, its function, and its force. To illustrate, C&H talk about a situation involving a waiter, a customer, a cup of coffee, and an action of giving. This situation is the content of the sentence. Different forms of sentences could contain this same content: declarative (You’re giving me a cup of coffee), interrogative (Are you giving me a cup of coffee?), or imperative (Give me a cup of coffee). The function is what, on the surface, in a literal-minded way, the sentence does. The declarative makes a statement; the interrogative asks a question; the imperative gives a command or request. The force is what the speaker actually intends for the sentence to do. For example, the declarative You’re giving me a cup of coffee could be taken as a command, rudely expressed. The interrogative Are you giving me a cup of coffee? might be expressing a speaker’s impatience more than posing a question to be answered.

I found this part of the chapter confusing, even though the concepts were familiar to me. Part of the trouble is that C&H try to take a preview-then-fuller-picture approach. In one section, they work through the example of the cup of coffee, mentioning some of the technical terms in the course of the discussion. In the next section, they focus more intensely on the ideas of form, content, function, and force. The result is that some of the ideas get presented twice, which made me think on the first reading that I had misunderstood what they were saying in the previous section. In particular, the idea of force is blurry. For example, they give the sentence “What kind of dog is that?”, saying that “[t]he force is that the hearer should provide the answer to the question.” Maybe, but I could easily imagine this as a rhetorical question, with the intended force of insulting the hearer’s dog. Other readers who imagined a similar scenario might find themselves thinking they’d misunderstood the difference between function and force.

Why do C&H need to make these distinctions? The point they’re leading to is that it is a language’s grammar that contains the rules for linking particular kinds of content and functions with the right forms. (Force is quietly dropped from the picture at this point, I assume because it depends so much more on context.)

Next, C&H turn to the idea of structure of a sentences and phrases — the kind of thing I do in posts that show syntactic tree diagrams. They spend a page in defense of learning grammar, and it’s here that they best state the purpose of learning these technical concepts:

We already know intuitively how our own language works; the challenge is to acquire knowledge about how another language works. And we want that knowledge to be usable.

To put it another way, the grammar of a language is the set of “rules” … that specify how units are arranged to form phrases and sentences and how the parts of a sentence correspond to its meaning. For anyone who wants to learn how to communicate thoughts in another language, some insight into the grammar of that language can be very useful, and in some cases it may even be essential. (p. 96)

Another good statement of their aim in increasing awareness of English grammar:

[I]t does help to know that another language could use a different order of words, but we have to know precisely what the order is. In other words, we know what questions we should ask about how another language forms [sentences], but we do not necessarily know what the answers are going to be. (p. 98) [NW: The actual phrasing is “how another language forms questions”, but I think this has to be a cut-and-paste error.]

The rest of the chapter is devoted to developing very basic phrase-structure rules for languages that differ from English in, for example, putting the subject after the verb. The analogy they use is that of a “Chinese menu”. All that means is “choose something from column A, something from column B, and something from column C,” which apparently is how menus in some Chinese restaurants are set up. The exercises here are mainly consciousness-raising about the structure of English phrases, with some comparison exercises like those in Part 1, this time comparing how English and some other language form verb phrases or different kinds of full sentences.

Chapter 8, “Talking About Things,” goes more specifically into the grammar of noun phrases. C&H begin by introducing the category of noun, but once again I got thrown off by their strategy of giving a small taste of the material to be covered in one section and then the fuller treatment later. C&H talk about how languages differ in how they indicate definiteness of a noun, and on how (or whether) they mark singular and plural. This material is covered again in later sections, which had me going back to this first section to see if it really was the same subject matter or if I’d misunderstood something. The next section covers determiners, including issues of agreement, gender and sex, noun classes (the more general notion of which gendered nouns are just a special case), placement of determiners, and learning to use them. Here C&H give one piece of specific for learning other languages: Memorize nouns and the determiners that go with them as set phrases. Although it’s good to understand the rules that generate these phrases, for effective communication they need to be accessible instantly.

The last subsection in the section on determiners is called “Describing Things,” and is not about determiners at all, but about adjectives and relative clauses. Huh? It turns out that this is just a segue into the section on adjectives (“We discuss how this works next.”). This is another example of how the organization of the chapters in Part 2 is hard to follow. It doesn’t help that the headings for the main sections and subsections aren’t intuitively clear on their hierarchical position. I found myself flipping back to the beginning of the chapter to look at the font of the first section, or looking for a section heading immediately atop a subsection heading so I could determine whether the (sub)section I was entering was part of the previous topic, or a new one.

C&H discuss the rules for ordering determiners, adjectives, and nouns in English, and compare the rule to some used in other languages, pointing out different ordering possibilities, and the fact that some languages make adjectives agree with nouns in number and gender (or noun class). The next section does the same for relative clauses. The exercises involve figuring out phrase structure rules for determiners, adjectives, nouns, and relative clauses in a few languages, again with the apparent aim of raising the language learner’s consciousness of these other possibilities, and minimizing surprise and confusion when they are encountered in a target language.

Chapter 9, “Expressing Meaning,” is the longest chapter in the whole book. In it, C&H do for verb phrases what they did for noun phrases in Chapter 8. Because of the longer length, the presentation problems mentioned above make this chapter even more difficult going. The overall picture C&H present is that a verb is the heart of a sentence, because it says what role all the noun phrases play in the event being described. Various roles include agent, theme, instrument, goal, source, and experiencer. These roles are part of a sentence’s content; how they are expressed in a sentence is an issue of form. When talking of form, we don’t talk about roles, but grammatical functions: subject, direct object, indirect object. There are three main ways of identifying these grammatical functions in languages: word order, case markings, or agreement, and prepositions. Whoops! Make that four main ways! Which role is linked to which grammatical function depends on the individual verb. A verb is said to directly govern the roles that it expresses with grammatical functions, and indirectly govern those that it has to express via prepositional phrases.

C&H also discuss the difference between main verbs and auxiliary verbs, active and passive voice, tense, mood, and aspect. By this time, the language learner may be getting overwhelmed, and there is simply no way to cover all the other ways of doing things that a target language might have. All C&H can do is raise the learner’s awareness enough to allow them to ask the right questions, and hopefully assimilate the answers better than they would if these possibilities were coming as a surprise. For example, in the section on mood, C&H tell the learner, “As a language learner, you will have to come to terms with the different ways in which your native language and the language you are learning carry out these functions” (p. 152); in other words, “You’re on your own here, and good luck.”

Chapter 9 continues, as C&H tell how verbs express different the different functions previewed in Chapter 7. They give a good overview here of how English and a few other languages differ in making statements, posing questions, and giving commands. The exercises are the same type as in Chapter 8, inviting the reader to think about how the rules work in English, and how they work in other languages that they already know.

Part 2 of BLLL is a tough read, because of the amount of information squeezed into it and because of the problems in presentation. However, this book is aimed at intelligent, motivated learners, and after a second pass through the chapter, there is a lot of good, general information about how languages express various kinds of meaning, information that will probably help the learner who pays attention and thinks about these things while learning a foreign language. I hope that in future editions, there will be more diagrams showing the interplay of the various concepts introduced. There are two pages of phonetic charts at the very back of the book; why not some charts showing semantic roles, grammatical functions, sentence forms, agreement, and the like?

One Response to “Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 2”

  1. […] Learners, Part 1Glen on Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 1Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 2 « Literal-Minded on Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 1The Ridger on Review of Basics of […]

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