Linguistics and Language Learning

By | Februari 20, 2017

The intersection of linguistics and language learning has led to several distinct areas of study. The unifying field of educational linguistics examines issues such as the characteristics of the language being taught, the spread of its use in the community in which the learner lives and in which his or her school is located, factors associated with setting goals in foreign language education, and the effectiveness of teaching strategies in attaining various educational goals.

One subarea of educational linguistics is pedagogical grammar, concerning itself with identifying grammatical rules which facilitate the teaching and the learning of a particular language at various phases of its acquisition, in contrast to scientific grammar, which eventually will exhaustively describe the ideal use of a language. Another area of educational linguistics is contrastive analysis, which examines similarities and differences between the mother tongue of the learner and the language being taught, with the aim of predicting difficulties that learners may encounter in the process of mastering a particular language. Finally, error analysis is based on the systematic study of errors that learners commit at various phases of learning a particular language.

1. Educational Linguistics

The scope of educational linguistics is defined both by the areas that it encompasses, such as language education policy; first and second language learning and teaching; reading; literacy; composition; bilingual, immigrant, and minority education; language testing; and by the fields from which it derives its theoretical foundations, including theoretical linguistics, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, and anthropological linguistics (Spolsky 1978a). The focus of study may be on the society (e.g., what languages are used for what purposes?) or the individual (e.g., what is the communicative competence of the person whose education is being examined?). A first major distinction arises between rare homogeneous and more common heterogeneous speech communities, where several varieties are in systematically structured alternative use in the same community, resulting in various kinds of societal bilingualism or diglossia, where one variety is used for informal functions usually including school (Lewis 1980; Spolsky 1988). Studies of communicative competence have shown that language education must be concerned with the ability of the learner to participate in a society as a speaking and communicating member. Approaches that are concerned only with a single variety, or with such a narrow issue as the shibboleths or standard grammar rules of a prestigious written variety are unlikely to meet the needs of those being educated. It is necessary to know the patterns of language use in the communities from which children come, the values ascribed to language by different sectors of society, the actual language ability of the children in the various settings in which they are required to communicate, and the modifications in ability that will best fit the children to function as communicating members of the society they are preparing to join.

Second language learning is a complex process that occurs naturally in all children. In normal circumstances, children acquire the socially expected control of the variety or varieties to which they are exposed before coming to school. Educational linguistics stresses the broad range of communicative competence and the full social context in which language operates. Basic is the notion that all living languages offer evidence of comparable complexity and so of comparable potential for cognitive development; there is no linguistic evidence of an inherently inferior language, and no linguistic support for the notion that one language is intrinsically better than another. At the same time, all varieties of language are socially valued, and this social value rather than inherent linguistic value or quality is usually what determines language education policy. In a strongly religious community, the variety of language associated with the religion or the language of its sacred texts is likely to have the highest prestige; in a modern industrialized society, the variety used by the dominant social group is usually the prestige variety; in the academic world the style and variety of writing called academic prose has the highest prestige. Prestige is crucial in the determination of rationales and goals for language education. There have generally only been sketchy descriptions of language situations and inadequate methods of measuring the actual level of language control achieved by children before they begin their education; as a result the development of aims and curricula for language education programs is often misguided.

Rationales for language education might be linguistic (the notion that acquisition of a variety of language is good in itself), psychological (the notion that mastery of a variety of languages has value for personal, emotional, or intellectual growth), socio-political (the notion that control of a variety of language has value for a social or political unit), cultural (the notion that knowledge of a variety of language provides access to the religious or cultural knowledge of specific bodies), or pedagogical.. The existence of many competing sources of pressure provides the potential for conflict. In heterogeneous communities the study of language education becomes a study of political struggle (Phillipson 1992).

There are a number of unfounded opinions about language education which are likely to influence policymakers, parents, and educators. The first of these is the notion that there is a single correct variety of language. In actual fact, sociolinguistic research has shown that all societies have a complex pattern of social values attached to a wide range of registers, varieties, styles, and languages. A second misleading notion is the idea that language education should be concerned with reading and writing alone. Speaking and listening skills are just as important in most communities and deserve full attention from the school, whether in teaching of the mother tongue or of foreign language. A third mistaken notion has already been discussed: there is no evidence of inherent inferiority in any particular language. A forth notion that has not stood up to empirical testing is the dictum of UNESCO experts and others that reading must be taught in the mother tongue: there are many situations in which high levels of literacy are achieved in a second language. A fifth incorrect notion is the idea that bilingualism is in some way harmful. This notion, derived from the work of psychologists who carried out their studies in societies where bilingualism was stigmatized as a mark of membership of a linguistic minority, has been refuted by studies of cases where bilingualism is a mark of membership of an elite group (Skutnabb-Kangas and Cummins 1988).

A language education policy may choose to extend and improve the variety of language that a child brings from home (mother tongue education, vernacular education, language arts education, teaching of reading and writing), to add another variety for limited use (foreign language or classical language education) or for general use (bilingual education), or to replace the home language with another language immediately (the home-school language switch, submersion, second language education), or temporarily (immersion foreign language teaching). More than one additional or replacement language may be taught. The policy may or may not be congruent with the actual situation: for instance, failing to recognize the actual home or community language situation, a school may use a mother tongue approach when the pupils are in fact learning a foreign or second language.

The implementation of policy covers the full range of language education pedagogy: method, approach, materials, and teachers. More than most fields, this field’s pedagogical history is marked by the regular announcement and temporary acceptance of new panaceas for old ills: a list need only be made of some of the labels that have been popular in the various parts of the field:

a. in reading: phonics, look-see or whole word, speed reading;
b. in heterogeneous speech communities: mother tongue, vernacular, transitional or maintenance enrichment, compensatory bilingual, or bilingual bicultural monoliterate or biliterate, second language;
c. in foreign or second language teaching: new method, natural method, direct method, audiolingual method, immersion, cognitive method, language for special purposes or for academic purposes, notional, functional, or notional-functional, content-based.

Curricula and textbooks have multiplied, sometimes but not always reflecting growth in understanding of the complex learning processes involved. With the increase of modern technology, language education has joined the subjects that are considered to benefit from modern equipment, such as record players, tape recorders, elaborate systems of tape recorders organized into language laboratories, film, television, programmed instruction with or without computer control, and videodisks. All of these technologies have been applied to various aspects of language education, with varying levels of success.

The measurement and evaluation of outcomes of various programs and the testing of individual students are also central concerns of educational linguistics, but are treated elsewhere in the Encyclopedia (see Language Testing). Organizationally, the field of educational linguistics remains comparatively unrepresented: educational linguists are found and trained in various parts of the university, most often where there is collaboration between scholars in education, linguistics, anthropology, and language departments (see Professional Associations; Research Centers).

2. Pedagogic Grammar

A pedagogic grammar is a collection of explicit generalizations about a language, derived generally from one or more scientific grammars to provide practical teaching material. Notwithstanding the systematic relationship between scientific and pedagogic grammars, they differ significantly with respect to two important features: (a) their inherent goals; (b) the manner in which they represent the linguistic rules (Spolsky 1978b).

The major aim or underlying motivation of a scientific grammar is to describe and explain linguistic knowledge. Such a grammar seeks, therefore, to develop the best theoretical model or framework to provide a vocabulary for discussing the elements of language, such as sounds, words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and discourse units, as well as the linguistic rules that define and explain how these elements are used. The writer of a scientific grammar aims to give a systematic account of the idealized linguistic knowledge or competence that underlies the actual use of language in concrete communicative situations.

The goal of a pedagogic grammar is quite different, since its major objective is to impart knowledge. Such a grammar concerns itself with the needs of the learner and the teacher. A pedagogic grammar is therefore, by definition, prescriptive in nature, since it must guide the learner in using language properly.

In the process of converting linguistic rules into pedagogic generalizations, the writer of a pedagogic grammar has to follow didactic considerations. The ordering of the rules is, therefore, guided by usefulness, frequency, conceptual familiarity, and contrast with the mother tongue of the learners. A careful process of sequencing, grading, and recycling of information needs to be applied to the ordering of the rules, thus rendering a grammar very different in nature from the scientific grammar or grammars upon which it is based. Some of the rules in the pedagogic grammar give only partial information, and therefore violate the true linguistic validity of these rules, but such partial definitions may be the result of careful pedagogic considerations and are therefore necessary for the acquisition process (Allen 1974) (see Grammar Teaching (Foreign Language)).

3. Contrastive Linguistics

Contrastive linguistic analysis is a subdiscipline of comparative linguistics concerned with the comparison of two or more languages or subsystems of languages to determine the differences or similarities between them. After some pioneering contrastive studies with a primarily theoretical bias in the early twentieth century, contrastive linguistic analysis received major impetus from attempts in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s to work out effective and economical foreign language teaching methods. The most efficient language teaching materials and techniques were thought to require a scientific description of the language to be taught, carefully compared with a parallel description of the learner’s native language (Fries 1945). The underlying theoretical assumption was the idea, expressed by Lado (1957), that the degree of difference between the two languages also correlated with the degree of difficulty. Later on, attention was also called to the similaritiesbetween the languages, and it was found that differences and similarities can be equally problematic. In the United States, a series of extensive contrastive linguistic analyses were undertaken in the 1960s between English and a number of other languages, and in Europe several contrastive projects were launched somewhat later (Fisiak 1981). Although the objectives were normally clearly applied, the results applicable for specific purposes have remained minimal, which has given rise to doubts about the validity of contrastive studies.

Contrastive studies nowadays may be theoretical or applied. As well as giving an extensive account of the differences and similarities between the languages compared, theoretical studies provide an adequate model for cross-language comparison and determine how and which elements are comparable. Theoretical contrastive linguistic studies are also useful in adding to the knowledge about the languages contrasted. No claims are made as to the applicability of the results for specific purposes.

Applied contrastive studies aim at gathering contrastive information for specific purposes, such as language teaching, translation, and bilingual education. The major concern is the identification of potential trouble in the use of the target language. The main concern of early applied contrastive studies was to devise a reliable prediction of the learner’s difficulties. This was later to be called the strong hypothesis of contrastive analysis. The strong hypothesis did not prove to be valid because similarities and differences between the languages were not the only causes of problems for the learner. Error analysis was therefore offered as an alternative to contrastive studies, and the predictive role of contrastive studies was superseded by an explanatory one in this weak version of the contrastive hypothesis. Despite continued criticism, contrastive analysis remains a useful tool in the search for the sources of potential trouble. It cannot be overlooked either in syllabus design, or in the preparation of textbooks and teaching materials (Fisiak 1981; Sajavaara and Lehtonen 1975) (see Contrastive and Error Analysis).

4. Error Analysis

Correction of errors has always been a common practice in foreign language teaching. A systematic analysis of learners’ errors was introduced in the wake of contrastive analysis. Variability in learner performance could not, however, be explained by means of error analysis alone, and the basic problems found in contrastive analysis, such as comparability of specific items and equivalence, remained.

Traditional error analysis consists of five stages. In error recognition, an attempt is made to distinguish systematic competence errors from performance errors; that is, mistakes and lapses easily corrected by the learner when pointed out (Corder 1981). In the following stages, the errors are described according to a model and classified. In the explanation of the errors, three causes are usually distinguished: interlingual errors caused by interference from the mother tongue, intralingual errors caused by the target language system, and teaching-induced errors. At the final stage, the errors are compared with target language norms to assess their influence on the success of communication. The decisions about the nature of feedback to be provided to learners are crucially dependent on the systematicity of the errors.

More recent approaches to error analysis consider systematic errors to be markers of the learner’s progress-the phenomenon has come to be characterized as interlanguage, transitional competence, approximative system, or idiosyncratic dialect. It is characterized as a distinct linguistic system resulting from the learner’s attempts to achieve target language norms (Selinker 1972).

The main problem in error analysis is the same as in contrastive analysis. The theory and methodology of linguistics are insufficient to explain the phenomena involved. A wider framework is needed, involving psychological, sociological, neurological, and other related insights into cognitive mechanisms and information processing in the brain and the speech channel as a whole.


Spolsky, Bernard. (1999). Concise Encyclopedia Of Educational Linguistics. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

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