Language is the common property of all humans & is the expression of thought

The comparison starts out

“Language is the common property of all humans” on the linguistic side and “Language is the expression of thought” on the Humanities side.

Are these juxtaposed, contrasted, what? From what I’ve heard some language teachers say, there seems to be some doubt that language as the typical fl teacher thinks of language is really common to all humans. This derives from the emphasis in their studies on the literature of a high civilization. When they think of other peoples in the world, they do not necessarily see them as on the same level with people of high civilizations and, almost as a by-product, do not imagine their languages as the equal of a language like French or Japanese, especially if it is not written.

I recall a post where the writer referred to Wolof as if picking some remote example of a language no one could possibly know or care anything about. In reality, Wolof not only is a major language of West Africa, it is the source of a number of words in American English. In addition, and more to my point, it is an exceedingly complex language, used by John McWhorter to exemplify the unnecessary complexification undergone by languages spoken among an in-group (in The Power of Babel, I believe).

How does such a view of language, one that elevates the languages of high civilizations to the level of serious study and relegates languages like Wolof to the margins, attended to only by highly specialized and esoteric departments and journals, affect the way fl teaches operate in the classroom, which is the point of this whole exercise in comparison? Language as an expression of thought is just as true as its companion declaration and comes to me from many definitions I have seen in the standard issue school grammar manuals.

The linguistic oriented teacher will present the TL as one variety of a great variety of languages. The TL’s place among the world languages will be ascertained rather than the TL being placed upon a pedastal. The student will gain an understanding of how human beings behave in their communications with one another and will understand the TL as one of those ways.

The humanities oriented teacher may be prone to presenting the TL as unique, as possessed of special qualities few other or no other languages possess. While this esotericism may attract a few students, it leaves the majority with the sense that they are entering a bizarre world, one with no relevance to their own.

This, I believe, is the real damage that can be done by elevating the TL over other languages. Almost all books surveying a particular language provide us with a quote, usually from some nationalist poet, extolling the special qualities and virtues of the TL. And indeed these conceptions grew out of romantic nationalism and the teacher needs to know enough history to understand this. This is what is known as the external history of a language.

By thus distancing students from the TL, motivation to learn may be decreased. On the plus side, some few students are attracted to such isolated magnificence.

What is the downside to the linguistic orientation? Prominent is the way some teachers may present the TL as a series of structures and pronunciation drills and lose all the romance that a language can provide. Without the posters of the Italian countryside and Roman ruins, kimono-clad geisha and merry men in lederhosen, motivation can be decreased just as much. The linguistic orientation can forgo the pinnacles of achievement that may draw us to a particular language in the first place; there is little room in a purely utilitarian approach for culture in all its manifestations.

Most teaches provide a peek into the world of other languages and touch upon the culture of the TL, finding a balance between these two extremes. If anything, I think fl teachers generally err on the side of the arts and humanities. For the teacher himself, his own knowledge of his language may suffer as was the case with a Latin teacher who asked me how in the heck anyone could know how the ancient Romans pronounced Latin. He had no idea of linguistic reconstruction. That is internal history. All fl teachers should know something about the history of their language, about the culture(s) it bears, about its variations in dialects, and it place among the world’s languages.

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