Linguists are interested in all the languages of the world and in all the varieties that are found, the standard and the non-standard, the prestigious and the stigmatized. They recognize that languages cannot exist in any full sense without people and they are fully aware that, as a discipline, linguistics is still in its infancy. We can ask alt of the right questions but we cannot always full or acceptable answers. Among the questions raised by linguists are: How did language arise? How do children acquire it? Why does it change? Are all human languages related? How can we teach and learn languages that are not our mother tongue? Why do people in all countries and in all conditions have both a language and a literature? We shall start with the first question and then indicate how linguistics has subdivided in the attempt to study aspects of language more closely and more systematically.

The simplest answer to the question: How did language arise? Is that we do not know. Nor is it likely that we shall ever know. It has been suggested that our ancestors left the forests for the plains hundreds of thousands of years ago and that their  new conditions demanded a much more complex signaling system. Gradually, it is argued, human beings began to use a system of sounds that was not limited by time or in space. By this we mean that human beings would not only make noises in the presence of danger, but learned to relate experiences and even to anticipate them verbally. It is  possible that human languages evolved from primitive signaling systems – possible but not provable.

First, our records of language use go back less than six thousand years and these records reveal languages that were just as complex, just as precise, as their modern counterparts. Secondly, all modern languages studied are equally capable of expressing the linguistic needs of their users. People may live in primitive conditions but this does not mean that their languages are simple or lacking in subtlety. Thirdly, although linguists have studied language for at least three thousand years, we have no comprehensive or totally satisfactory grammar of any living language.  And yet children learn the language or languages of their environment easily and completely and, it must be added, without any obvious instruction. Perhaps the best we can do is study today’s languages and when our knowledge is more complete we may then be able to offer more comprehensive theories for the origin of language. They will be theories, however, and not answers.


By our language we define the groups to which we belong. We define certain people as inside the group, and we leave others out. Language comes to be an accurate map of the sociological divisions of a society. (Robins Burling:1973)

This branch of linguistics concentrates on language in society, in other  words, it tries to examine how and why people use language a they interact with other members of their society. Sociolinguistics examines variety in language and has shown that language is not merely used to communicate ideas but also to communicate our opinion of others and of ourselves. Even the simplest utterance such as ‘Hello!’ can reveal that the speaker wishes to be friendly and informal, and that he or she is probably British (many Americans would prefer ‘Hi!’). in considering any spoken communication, therefore, a student will notice that a speaker’s language reveals information on his sex, approximate age, regional and perhaps ethnic origins, education and attitude to his listeners. Variation also occurs in terms of the subject matter under discussion: nuclear disarmament will not be discussed in the same terms as neighborly gossip. Nor will one use identical forms of language with a shopkeeper and a minister of religion. Speakers can also range in formality from the shared intimacy of slang through casual conversation to the stiff correctness that usually characterizes an interview. Variety, then, and not unchanging monotony is the norm in mother-tongue usage and so sociolinguistics studies how, when, why and in what ways variation occurs.

In multilingual communities, lingua francas have often grown up as a means of permitting communication where such lingua francas have developed, whether in Africa, America, Asia, Australia or Europe, they show remarkable similarities. Initially this similarity surprised linguists but the greater our knowledge grows, the more we realize that human beings are similar and human needs are similar, so perhaps it would be even more surprising if our techniques for communicating proved to be very different.

Sociolinguists thus set themselves the tasks of examining language use, its variation, its development, change and standardization, its regional and class dialects, its lingua francas, its specialized codes. Much has been learnt, including the fact that we use language as often to exclude others as we do to establish bonds. The greater our knowledge grows, however, the more we are forced to recognize the extraordinary flexibility and complexity of all human systems of communication.

It is more common for a lingua franca to be what is known as a pidgin language. The definitions and uses of the term pidgin vary in the literature; it will be defined as a mode of speech that is not anyone’s native language, but which can be demonstrated to have developed from at least two such languages. Typically, a pidgin retains a large portion of the vocabulary and phonology of a language, but simplifies its morphology and syntax. Such things as grammatical gender distinctions, elaborate compound verb tenses, and complicated systems of pronouns are frequently eliminated in pidginization.

When people speaking a pidgin are for  one reason or another isolated from other language communities, it may happen that a new generation will be born which acquires no other language except the pidgin. A language like this, which has been a pidgin but has become a native language, is called a creole.  Obviously, the exact point at which a pidgin stops being a pidgin and becomes a creole may be difficult to determine.

One of the most amazing things about the linguistic competence of speakers is their ability to move back and forth among languages, dialects, and registers with ease, as demanded by the social situation or their own inner necessities. This skill is called code-switching. Code switching is a change by a speaker (or writer) from one language or language variety to another one. Code switching can take place in a conversation when one speaker uses one language and the other speaker answers in a different language. A person may start speaking one language and then change to another one in the middle of their speech, or sometimes even in the middle of a sentence.[1] In the United States today, especially in academic and business situations, the ability to code-switch is clearly a survival skill.


If you were asked how children acquire their native language, you might say something like :They learn it by imitating their parents and other people around them.” This is a logical conclusion to come to, and one that appeals strongly to the intuitions of anyone who has been around little children as they learned to talk. It is also essentially the content of one of the two major competing positions in contemporary psycholinguistics with regard to this  issue: the theoretical position associated primarily with the work of B. F. Skinner and known as the behaviorist hypothesis. (Suzette Haden Elgin:1979)

This branch deals with the relationship between language and the mind, focusing mainly on how language is learnt, stored and occasionally lost. The relationship between language and mind has two aspects, acquisition and performance, and the two are intimately linked. What we acquire is the ability to perform, that is, to use language with appropriateness, and performance is essential to complete and successful acquisition. Knowledge of this interlocking relationship underlies most successful language teaching and so we shall return to it in our section on applied linguistics.

The basic fact calling for explanation in this area is the remarkably short time that a child takes to acquire an extensive knowledge of, and high degree of control over, the language or languages of his environment. Expressing this another way, we can say that a normal child of five has, without any obvious difficulty, learnt to control a language that no mature linguist can fully explain. Let us look at a little closer at what  a child of five can actually do: he can understand utterances that he has never heard before; produce sentences that are totally new to him and to his listeners; and  he can use his knowledge of a speech to acquire the new skills of writing and reading. He can do all of this because, somehow, he has managed to extract from the speech he has heard the underlying system of the language. Furthermore, he has acquired essentially the same samples of language.

During the past forty years there have been two main theories to account for the phenomenon of language learning by children. The first, known as ‘behaviourism’, was fully formulated by B. F. Skinner in Verbal Behaviour (1957). This theory claims that language learning in children can be accounted for in very much the same way as we can account for a dog learning to stand on its  hind legs to beg for a biscuit: training, stimulation, imitation, reward and repetition.

The second theory, known as ‘mentalism’, argues that just as human children are genetically programmed to walk when they reach a certain stage of development, so they are programmed to talk. Research suggests that all children of all nationalities, irrespective of race, class or intelligence, learn language in regular steps, moving from babbling to one-word utterances, then to combining two words until their speech is indistinguishable from the adult norms of their community. Mentalists suggest that language is as natural a part in the development  of human beings as the growth of the body. Given the right environment, that is, exposure to speech, a child automatically acquires language. Obviously, if a child is not exposed to language he will not learn it. Perhaps an analogy will help here. A child is not a miniature speaker but a potential one in the same way as an acorn is not a miniature ok tree, but, given the right environment, it will become an oak.

Psycholinguists also attempt to understand dysphasia (literally ‘bad speech’), dyslexia (word blindness) and aphasia (the sudden or gradual loss of language due to age, an accident or a stroke). We all have experience of aphasia when we cannot remember the word for something or when we say: ‘Put that in the fridge’ when we mean the oven or the cupboard. Such slips are commonplace and are made by all users of language when they are  tired or tense or getting old. The slips we make are extremely interesting. Notice, for example, that the items ‘fridge’, ‘oven’ and ‘cupboard’ have a great deal in common. They are all nouns, all receptacles for food, all in the kitchen and all with large doors. Such slips suggest that we may store words with similar meanings together. Other slips such as using a word like ‘woollen’ when we mean ‘wooden’ suggest that we may store some words, especially adjectives, according to sound.

Psycholinguists have learnt a great deal and are daily  learning more about how we use, abuse and lose language. They too have discovered the non-finite nature of language. Some problems have been solved. (Deaf children can be helped to better enunciation if they are fitted with a hearing device shortly after birth.) but each solution has revealed how little we really know about language and how much more research is needed.


The term “applied linguistics” has become fashionable in the field of education in recent years, and, as often happens with pedagogical fads, has been used so broadly and so loosely that it has almost ceased to have any real meaning at all. The book market has been flooded with “applied” materials of all kinds, especially in language arts, foreign language teaching, and the area of bilingual/bidialectal education. This has sometimes led to serious problems, particularly since many of these materials confuse structural linguistics and generative transformational linguistics and offer products based upon that confusion. When these materials fail to “work” in the classroom, the tendency is to blame linguistics, which is not really either fair or accurate. A brief historical discussion may be of some help here.

Travelers have always known that communication depends on the ability to modify language use. Sometimes the modifications required are relatively slight, as when a Londoner wants to get directions from a Scot. Often, they are much greater and involve the use of a language other than one’s mother tongue. People have been learning other languages throughout recorded history and two facts seem to have been known always:

(1) that any human language is capable of being translated into any other and

(2) that word-for-word translation is inadequate. To have a good knowledge of another language means acquiring something of the native speaker’s innate knowledge.

Recently, the insights gained in sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics have been applied to language teaching and learning. Courses in English for Special Purpose (ESP) are based on the knowledge that native speakers use language differently depending on subject matter and audience, for example. Therefore, a scientists use. Scientists use more passive structures when they write than non-scientists do. It is clearly useful, therefore, to teach passives to scientists who need to learn some English.

Insights from psycholinguistics have resulted in foreign languages being taught to children earlier since we seem to lose our linguistic flexibility at puberty. They have also led to an awareness that the errors made by learners can be useful in suggesting the hypotheses learners make as they master their target language.

Many techniques have evolved for the efficient teaching of languages, techniques involving contrastive analysis (a detailed examination of both mother tongue and target language and the pinpointing of potential areas of difficulty) and error analysis. Others have concentrated on the learner, examining the way he creates successive ‘interlanguages’ as he moves from modeling the target language on his mother tongue to a fuller control of the target.

It is  certainly true that language laboratories and modified teaching strategies have resulted in a better grasp of the spoken medium and in a quicker grasp of the basic tools necessary to permit elementary communication. It is, however, doubtful that any one technique will ever become a linguistic philosopher’s stone capable of transforming hesitant learners into fluent speakers. Used by a good teacher any method can produce students who master intricacies of a foreign language. And no method, however linguistically sanctioned, will work without motivation, practice, reinforcement and, most of all, the opportunity to use the acquired language for tasks for which it would be used by the native speaker.


[1] Jack
Richards, John Platt and Heidi Weber, Longman
Dictionary of Applied Linguistics
. Longman 1985. p 43