Let’s Think about the Language

As I was playing with my baby daughter some days ago, we were listening to some of my childhood songs from the movie The Sound of Music. While listening, something really interesting came to mind regarding the discussion of whether or not we think in a given language and how important it is for ultimate attainment of a second language. The song, Do-Re-Mi, may not retrieve any linguistic memory (many affective ones, maybe), but if we pay close attention to the song, we notice that it displays a manner of thinking (a thinking mod).

Now children, Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol, and so on… are only the tools to build a song. Once you have these notes in your head, you can sing a million different tunes by mixing them up! (Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music)

In a very pedagogical manner, the passage above represents a thinking mod, i.e., a modality that people can use to think – think musically. A person can use notes to think and then transform the melodies into lyrics that match Do-Re-Mi, which leads us to recognize that our thoughts do not have an official language. Instead, we use language as a tool to represent our thought, our conceptualizations; we think about the language and not in the language. Jackendoff used a similar analogy when they remarked that “we speak of a particular computer running, say, Word 97, and speak of it storing certain data structures that enable it to run that program, we are speaking in functional terms – in terms of the logical organization of the task the computer is performing” (Jackendoff, 2002, pp. 21-22). Thus, just like computers use tools to perform a given task, we use language to perform strategically organized tasks thanks to our higher thinking order skills.

This strategy comprises the organization of conceptualizations formed as we are exposed to situational episodes (Fodor, 2008), and our language is then responsible for describing the thoughts.

For instance, in (1), we have an example by Dabrowska (2004, pp. 14-15) containing three content words that stand out when produced, especially if there is an action involved. The words ‘put,’ ‘apple,’ and ‘towel’ combined with some movements are responsible for creating a mental representation of both the action and the items. However, not only isolated words are the origin of mental representations. In (2), there is a full sentence representing an entire concept. This is part of a speech from the television show Young Sheldon (Season 3, Episode 10) when Sheldon’s mother takes his temperature. The sentence means that he did not have a fever. Such linguistic production is crafted based on mental organizations and not the contrary. Just as Julie Andrews said, we think of a melody (musically), and only then do we find the words.

(1) Put the apple on the towel.

(2) You don’t have a temperature.

“But Rudy,” you may ask me, “this is all about the process we go through when we are developing our native language and not a second one. We are English teachers”.

Whenever we combine words and establish a relation among the words as they are produced, there is meaning formation, for if someone is speaking, there is intent. Second Language Learners (SLL), in many cases, already possess this intent, the concepts are present, and they only need some assistance in making this word combination. Then, the learners use their higher thinking order skills to link the mental representation and the words that will better describe this learner’s feeling. In order to understand how we retrieve concepts, and only then do we try to find the linguistic combination, we can use the word ‘away.’

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Figure 1 – Mental Representations (Langacker, 1986, p. 7)

Cognitive grammar defines the meaning of a composite expression as including not only the semantic structure that represents its composite sense, but also its “compositional path”: the hierarchy of semantic structures reflecting its progressive assembly from the meanings of component expressions. (Langacker, 1986, p. 11)

According to Langacker (1986), people have a ‘database’ of situational images (conceptualizations) that are assigned to designate entities (domains) and expressions (designations) that are used to describe the domains. In other words, we have an imagery repertoire that is constructed based on social experiences. For each image, a linguistic combination is retrieved to describe the item in the repertoire. The word ‘away’ represents an entity that once was at a specific position and moved (or is moving) to a position distant from the starting point. This concept of the word is what our students will have to access – or learn in case their native language does not offer the same – associate it to the new word and only then proceed to create a follow-up or start a conversation. Regardless of the consequence, our role as language teachers is to help learners match their mental representation with the linguistic feature.

(3) Mars is very far away.

(4) She went away.

The difference between thinking in a given language and about it sends us back to the very first lines of this article. It is possible to think musically, i.e., instead of conceptualizations, our repertoire is composed of melodies like Do-Re-Mi, making it a thinking mod. We can think of melodies. However, regarding natural languages, we think about them in the sense that we browse the best word choices that combined will generate the intended meaning to describe an event accurately. When our students want to specify that Mars is located in a very distant place from the landmark – which is Earth – as we see in (3), this concept is already in their minds, and they can also convey that in their native language. What they may not know, though, is the exact word to express the distance, which is ‘away.’ They have to think about the language.

Once we succeeded in assisting our students in creating the mental representation for ‘away’ and connecting them both, now we need to expand its usage. In (4), we broaden this horizon by providing a model and, hopefully, practicing with a movement. This is to show learners the possibilities that the language offers us in expressing meaning.

Did I come to all this while playing with my baby girl? Not all of it. But if there is one thing that The Sound of Music sparked, we all have a thinking mod; only that language is not it. Languages are a tool we teach learners to use when they need to describe whatever they have in their minds in a manner that others will be able to understand. What we need to do as English teachers is to show our learners the words that will better represent their thinking – once they already have the concept formed – or encourage them to create one and then proceed to usage.

What about you? How have you been encouraging students to think about English in your EFL classes? Do you discuss idiom use? How do you help your students retrieve their mental representations so that you match these images with the new language? Use the comment section below because I am interested in sharing experiences with you.

References

Dabrowska, E. (2004). Language Mind and Brain: Some Psychological and Neurological Constraints on Theories of Grammar. Edinburgh University Press.

Fodor, J. (2008). The Language of Thought Revisited. Oxford University Press.

Jackendoff, R. (2002). Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. Oxford University Press.

Langacker, R. (1986). An Introduction to Cognitive Grammar. Cognitive Science, 10(1), 1-40. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15516709cog1001_1