The study of language

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Language has such a vital role in our being that it is impossible to imagine a world without it. The study of language must take into account the intricate physical, psychological and social aspects if it is to succeed in offering even the most basic explanation of such a complex human achievement. Language is arguable the one feature that sets the human being apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. This essay will attempt to explain how an interdisciplinary approach has assisted in the understanding of human language.

It will discuss the contribution of both psychology and sociology whilst debating the value of applying more than one branch of knowledge. The anatomy and physiology of speech will be discussed in terms of the physical attributes required for language to take place and the neurolinguistic processes. The theories, which have developed as a result of language research, will be appraised in respect of their value and ethical practices. Language has a cultural, social and personal role to play; it expresses a person’s individuality and social identity and as such requires both psychological and sociological explanations.

Hayes (2000) argues that language, in many ways, is the most important of all our human abilities. It is through language that we can imagine other worlds and communicate abstract ideas and as such it is language, which makes human civilisation possible. Montgomery (1995) warns that although ‘language provides the basis of community it also provides the grounds for division. Systematic knowledge about language and a practical awareness of how it works is fundamental to the process of building mature communities’ Montgomery (1995 p56).

Language is undeniably a very powerful human tool and can not be explained sufficiently simply via one academic discipline. Attempts to define language are as many and varied as the study of language itself likewise a definition reflects the viewpoint and the aspect of language being studied. For the purpose of this essay the following definition put forward by Hall (1964) is offered. Language is the institution whereby humans communicate and interact with each other by means of habitually used oral-auditory symbols. Hall (1964) as cited by Crystal (1987 p516)

The study of language is categorised in respect of the perspective to which it relates. Psycholinguistics is the study of language in terms of how are brains work and is achieved through investigating how children develop language as well as how damage to our brain results in certain kinds of language disorders as explained by Thomas and Wareing (2000). Hayes (2000) goes onto include the structure of language and its interaction with thinking in her explanation of psycholinguistics. Sociolinguistics, on the other hand, according to Lawson and Garrod (2003) is the study of language in its social and cultural context.

It focuses on the examination of class, ethnic and gendered forms of language which individuals create and develop in everyday life. Linguistics as a separate academic discipline is the area in which Noam Chomsky (1957) could be placed. Chomsky’s views on language have been enormously influential within psychology but have lost favour in recent years. An aspect of language which is of particular interest to psychologists is that of the connection between language and thought. Early behaviourists believed that thinking was nothing more than sub-vocal speech. (Hayes 1991).

Bernstein (1973) argued that children from different social classes were socialised into using language in different ways. Bernstein proposed two main speech codes, the elaborated code and restricted codes. He believed that as education is delivered in elaborated code used mainly by the middle class, this gave middle class children an advantage over working class pupils at school. Although Bernstein makes a valid point he has however has been criticised by those who mistakenly took his theory to suggest that middle-class speech was superior or those who used restricted codes could not think as well in abstract terms.

In other words if we don’t have the words to describe something then we are not able to think about it. Hayes (1991) Power is often demonstrated through language and language is often used to serve the interests of the dominant social group. Political correctness in the 1980’s brought with it language reform and terms such as ‘disabled’ replaced offensive descriptions such as handicapped, lame, spastic, and cripple. Language can affect our perception and so by using a negative term such as handicapped it can make a person, quite unfairly, appear incapable.

Thomas and Wareing (1999) question the success of language reform arguing that it can be seen as ‘a lot of fuss about nothing’ and does nothing change more deep rooted prejudice. Experimental studies have shown that language can influence the cognitive processes such as memory, perception and problem solving. The implication is that the form of language we adopt can direct our thinking in certain ways, thus failing to notice possible alternatives. Hayes (1991) suggests that this is the case with racist and sexist language where the range of vocabulary in a language influences how we perceive reality.

An example of which might be, the very few positive words in English for a strong woman, compared to the many found to describe men. As a result of this lack of positive words, negative expressions such as ‘Cow’ and ‘Battleaxe’ may be used, thus changing our whole perception of a strong woman. Hayes (1991) Studies of prejudice such as that of Jeffcoate (1979) have shown that it is understood even from a very early age that it is taboo to openly discuss discriminatory feelings. Discourse analysis is a far more effective way of revealing such attitudes, however ethical issues may arise.

If the discourse is in the public domain such as a public speech or interview on the television it can be legitimately studied without individual consent. Interpretations by the researchers can however affect or offend those who have provided the discourse. As in the case cited by Eysenck (2000 p 830) of discourse analysis carried out by Wethehall and Potter (1998) in which racist attitudes to Maoris were attributed to white New Zealanders, who were clearly angered by such an inference.

Further more in detailed analysis of an individuals discourse it may not be possible to adhere to the ethical principles of information being kept confidential and the identity hidden. Ethnocentricity and a lack of sensitivity to cultural and ethical influences is a common criticism of psychological and sociological research. In Trudgill’s (1995) study of sociolinguistics, he makes fascinating observations of ethnic and environmental influences on language such as the number of words the Bedouin Arabs have for camels and the study of taboo words in different cultures.

Turning our attention to the anatomy and physiology of speech it is important to note that language would not be possible unless the physical attributes were in place in which to perform the task of language. Vocal organs are required, lungs, larynx, tongue, ears for reception and the relevant parts of the brain are just some of the physical requirements which have evolved in the human capable of language. Neurolinguistic processing involves the parts of the brain such as Broca’s area, Wernicke’s area, and the visual, auditory and motor cortexes.

Penfield and Roberts (1959) studied the work of the team of neurosurgeons in Montreal who were the first to attempt to map the cortex. This was done by, testing areas of the brain and numbering their functions. Electrical stimulation was applied to different parts of the brain in epileptic patients. From this ground breaking research, neurolinguitics as a discipline has developed, spawning theories such as the critical period for language, which will now be discussed. The American psycholinguist Eric Lenneberg (1959) argued that there was a critical period for the acquisition of language based on brain maturation.

He believed that in order to develop language the brain had to be stimulated at some point between the age of two and puberty. By puberty the brain looses it neural plasticity and becomes fully developed thereby, in his view, closing the window of opportunity for language development. Crystal (1987). Lenneberg’s theory appeared to be supported by the case of Genie who was discovered at age of thirteen underdeveloped, neglected and kept in extreme isolation. She had received no linguistic stimulation between the age of two and puberty, so evidence of her language learning ability would bear directly on the Lenneberg hypothesis.

Crystal (1987) concluded that analysis of the way Genie developed her linguistic skills seemed to support Lenneberg although she was able to acquire some vocabulary. The ethical issues involved in the study of such a vulnerable case as Genie were not given sufficient consideration. Rymer (1994) comments on how her highly publicised discovery led to a kind of feeding frenzy for researchers interested not only in language development but her social, emotional, cognitive and physical development. It is hard to see how any informed consent and right to withdraw could have been achieved, let alone any benefit to her in such a fragile state.

Rymer (1994) explains how she offered so many avenues for study that her well being was in danger of being overlooked. Conclusion To study language in isolation, in other words simply from a psychological perspective excluding social or societal aspects would mean that vital influences may be missed and judgements would be incomplete. In the study of language many psychological aspects are affected by sociology and vice versa, as a result the interdisciplinary approach serves to draw as full a picture as possible.

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