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1.1. Learning a language means becoming part of a speech community.

 

I can think of two good reasons you are not going to learn any Chinese. Probably the most obvious reason is that although you hear plenty of Chinese being spoken, you have no way to find out what anything means. The second reason is closely related to the first. It is, I believe, more basic. You cannot learn Chinese because you have no relationship of any sort with anyone who uses Chinese.

Subsections
1.1.1 No relationships--no language!
1.1.2 Doing unto others, with others also doing unto you

1.1.1 No relationships--no language!

Language implies relationships. The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein reasoned that there can be no such thing as a private language, meaning a language which belongs to a single individual (Wittgenstein 1953). His reasons are rather philosophical, and his claim has been, like everything in philosophy, rather controversial. But I have my own (nonphilosophical) reasons for agreeing with Wittgenstein. A language is a means of communication between people. Suppose I see someone stealing your car, but you are looking the other way. What I see is now a part of my experience but not of yours. Language enables me to describe my experience to you with a statement like, “Hey, that guy is stealing your car”. There may be other uses of language, but they are all derivative on this basic one: language lets me make my experience available to you. What would it mean then for me to have a private language, that is, a way of making my experience available to myself? As soon as I have experienced an experience, indeed, while I am in the process of experiencing it, it is available to me. I can't make myself aware of what I'm already aware of by telling myself about it.

So when you talk about language, you're talking about community. You learned your first language within a community, and you learned it as a means of participating in community. The famous linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure compared language to a contract between the people who use it (de Saussure 1959). If I secretly decide to mean cat whenever I say the word dog, I will be misunderstood by all members of the English speaking community whenever I use the word dog. The word dog stand for dogs, but it doesn't stand for dogs in the abstract. It stands for dogs in that it is used by people to talk to other people about dogs. Take away other people, and you take away language. Language is an interpersonal thing, a shared thing, a communal thing. No community, no language.

Now, you want to learn a language. I hope you can see that what you are saying is that you want to become part of a community and function in that community by means of its language, which is its primary means of being a community.

(If you're the argumentative type, you're probably thinking of scenarios where everyone but you has been killed by a meteor, or perhaps you're thinking about people who learn a “dead” language from written documents. If I were argumentative, I'd convince you that even in these cases, language only exists through participation in communities. Good thing I'm not argumentative. Instead, I'll move right ahead with the discussion of what this all means for us as language learners.)

Think of how you learned your first language. A very small number of people interacted with you. This probably included your mother, and may have included other caretakers and older siblings. They were part of a larger language community, but at that point you did not have a lot to do with that larger community. There may have been a period of several months where your mother and siblings were the only ones who could easily understand what you were saying. As you ventured out farther into the world, your speech had to become more and more like that of the larger speech community.

Let's agree then, that learning Mandarin means (among other things) becoming part of a community which uses Mandarin as its main means of interaction. That community contains hundreds of millions of people. Do you enter into a relationship with hundreds of millions of people? The answer is yes. Recall that a language is like a contract between the people who use it. Everyone in that community accepts certain rules and plays by those rules. Though most of the members of the community will never meet one another; nevertheless, should they meet, they would at once recognize that they are members of the same community insofar as they recognize that their behavior is constrained by the same rules (or at least reasonably similar rules).

1.1.2 Doing unto others, with others also doing unto you

For communities to exist, people must share certain rules, or norms, of behavior. People don't usually think about most of the norms that they share with others in their communities. They may think about some of the norms, as when a parent tells a child, “You're supposed to say 'thank you' when someone does something nice for you.” However, that same parent may not realize that moments earlier, someone did something nice for her, and she didn't say “Thank you,” but instead said, “ You're too kind,” or perhaps, “How thoughtful of you,” or maybe, “You'll never know how much I appreciate that,” or possibly, “Hey, great!”. In those cases, the parent is following much more detailed, fine-tuned norms for expressing gratitude than the four-year-old who says “Thank you” is aware of at this point. The overwhelming majority of the norms which unite a community are ones that are rarely or never thought about consciously or discussed.

The main purpose of the community-wide norms is to ensure that the behavior of one person does not adversely affect other people. Therefore, someone who is seen to be a non-follower of the community norms is seen to be a potential threat to the community. Of course, in some cases it is clear that someone is still learning the norms. That implies the person is new to the community. That new person may be a baby. Or it may be you.

The norms which define a community become particularly important in the context of transactions. A transaction occurs when two people interact. If I sell you a used car, that is a transaction. If I meet you in the hall and smile, that too is a transaction.

For you to learn your new language is going to require that people talk to you, and listen to you, for thousands of hours. That will involve a very large number of transactions! A popular approach to understanding transactions is called the exchange theory (Homans, 1958, discussed in Milroy, 1987). According to the exchange theory, in every transaction there is a cost and a benefit. If I sell you a used car, you will receive something of value (the car) and so will I receive something of value (the money). (Likewise, we'll both be giving up something of value.) If I give you a ridiculously good deal, say, charging you only half of the true value of the car, and we are both aware that I have given you a ridiculously good deal, then sometime in the future when I ask a “small favour” of you, you may feel obliged to grant me the favour. That is because when the exchange is uneven, it creates a sense of indebtedness, called an obligation in the exchange theory. If I give you a smile, you can give me a smile in exchange. We both made each other feel warm and fuzzy. No obligation was created because we each gave something of equal value to the other.

The implications of this concept for language learners are enormous. Right now you have zero Mandarin Chinese (or Chukchee, or whatever) in your head. That is, there is an incomprehensibly large goody, i.e. the Chinese language, which you need. It is entirely in the possession of other people. The only way you will get it is if they give it to you. If you are going to be in the process of becoming a functioning part of a community of Chinese speakers, then something equal in value to what you are going to receive (the language, among other things) in the course of countless transactions will need to pass in the opposite direction, that is, from you to them. That should give you something to think about.

And to make matters worse, you'll start out as a potential trouble maker. Spradley and McCurdy (1984) gave the title Conformity and Conflict to their collection of readings in cultural anthropology. They explain that the very set of shared norms which makes it possible for a community to function smoothly (conformity) can become a destructive force when two communities come into contact (conflict). That is because those shared norms define what is good and bad in the eyes of the people who share them. Here you come, into the midst of conformers, a ready made source of conflict, since you operate by different standards of good and bad. You need a massive transaction to occur if you are to learn the language, but the deck is clearly stacked against your being able to hold up your end of the exchange. It will be very kind of them if you end up learning their language!


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