ESL instructors need to understand how languages work to be better able to serve the student population.

Language is what makes us human, and it's something no other creature has. Note the following, according to Noam Chomsky: "Language is a mirror of mind in a deep and significant sense. It is a product of human intelligence, created anew in each individual by operations that lie far beyond the reach of will or consciousness."

And language includes more than speech. There is a linguistic component including sounds, signs, graphemes, forms and grammar. There is also a paralinguistic component: tone, pitch, volume and speed, along with gestures and movements.

Finally, there is a sociolinguistic dimension of styles.


Sociolinguistics is the study of language as a social and cultural phenomenon. This is the province of language and its function in the real world.

Nonverbal behavior governs social interactions just as language does. Here are some examples:

  • Turning and looking at the source of a disruption (often quells the disturbance).
  • Looking through a person who is trying to join a gathering (a signal he is not wanted).
  • Turning away from someone who is initiating an action indicates he will not receive support.
  • Recoiling or flinching from a sudden loud or aggressive display (warns the offender to step back or speak more softly.


When a variety of language is shared by a group of speakers, it is known as a dialect. A dialect — whether standard or nonstandard includes the full range of elements used to produce speech: pronunciation, grammar and interactive features.

The dialect differs from the "standard" language in pronunciation and rules, but these differences are not enough to classify it as a separate language. In this respect, dialect should be distinguished from accent, which usually refers only to pronunciation. According to Alphadictionary:

"The English call the "hood" of a car the "bonnet" and the people in Brooklyn "schlep" things around while people in North Carolina "drag" them. These differences make up what are called dialects and the people in England speak one of several British dialects ("Cockney" is one of the most colorful), the people in Brooklyn speak a Brooklyn dialect and those in North Carolina speak a Southern dialect.

"Dialects are variants of a language, variants with slightly different pronunciation, different grammatical rules, and slightly different vocabularies. The interesting thing about dialects is that as they continue to develop over time, the differences become greater and greater until people from one dialect area cannot understand those from another. When this happens, the people from the different dialect areas are speaking different languages.

"Languages are not stagnant; they don't remain the same forever. They are constantly developing and changing. If one dialect group loses contact with people in another, the two groups are likely to develop into mutually unintelligible languages.

"At one time, for example, around 1,000 B.C.E., there was a single language that we call Proto-Germanic. Everyone speaking it could understand each other. But dialects emerged that developed into languages that are today called Danish, Dutch, English, Faroese, German, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish. These are then sister languages and Proto-Germanic is the mother language."

An individual's idiolect, is one’s particular and idiosyncratic manner of speech reflecting individual usage.

Teachers may be conflicted over a student’s use of nonstandard dialect and the need to teach a command of the standard language, particularly in writing.

Students may be tempted to use slang or vulgarities in imitation of native speakers. In some cases, the learner's own language will exhibit dialectical differences; there may be a colloquial or informal variety and a written or school variety existing side by side as is the case in Arabic.

Students may expect English to exhibit a similar difference and may have a problem initiating communication. They may use the wrong forms or idioms as in “Tell me what the teacher said," which sounds like a command rather than a request for information.

I once used the wrong word in Turkish. Since I knew Arabic I used the word adi, which means “ordinary” or “normal” in Arabic, but in Turkish it means “poor quality.” Turkish uses the borrowed word, “normal” (nor-MAL), to mean “normal.”

There seems to be a continuum between dialects and separate languages, as illustrated recently in The Atlantic:

"I have a Swedish pal I see at conferences in Denmark. When we’re out and about there, he is at no linguistic disadvantage. He casually orders food and asks directions in Swedish despite the fact that we are in a different country from his own, where supposedly a different “language” — Danish — is spoken. In fact, I’ve watched speakers of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian conversing with each other, each in their own native tongues, as a cozy little trio over drinks.

"A Dane who moves to Sweden does not take Swedish lessons; she adjusts to a variation upon, and not an alternate to, her native speech. The speakers of these varieties of Scandinavian consider them distinct languages because they are spoken in distinct nations, and so be it."

Some solutions to the question have been offered:

"So, what’s the difference between a language and a dialect? In popular usage, a language is written in addition to being spoken, while a dialect is just spoken. But in the scientific sense, the world is buzzing with a cacophony of qualitatively equal “dialects,” often shading into one another like colors (and often mixing, too), all demonstrating how magnificently complicated human speech can be."


A pidgin is a simple but rule-governed rudimentary language of a few basic items that develops as a trade language resulting from a blend of languages and is not learned as L1 (native or home language).

Pidgins such as Chinese Pidgin English and Melanesian Pidgin English arose through contact between English-speaking traders and inhabitants of East Asia and the Pacific islands. Other pidgins appeared with the slave trade in Africa and with the importation of West African slaves to Caribbean plantations.

"Most of the small vocabulary of a pidgin language (Melanesian Pidgin has only 2,000 words, Chinese Pidgin English (only 700) is usually drawn from a single language. (Melanesian Pidgin, for example, has an English word stock of more than 90 percent.)"

Both trade and colonialism were the driving forces behind the development of Pidgins:

"Among the most interesting cases of language contact are those which came about as the result of trade or of colonial expansion. The former has led to varying kinds of linguistic compromise for the purpose of barter and exchange. Such compromises often result in pidgins, highly reduced languages with a minimal vocabulary and grammar, restricted primarily to the function of trade. The term 'pidgin' itself is generally agreed to derive from 'business.'

"Some pidgins involve more mixture of vocabulary than others. For instance, Russenorsk, used in trade between Russians and Norwegians up to the 19th century, employed vocabulary from both groups' languages."


However when a pidgin is learned as a first language, it is “creolized.” For example, Haitian Creole, based on French and African languages, is the L1 of Haiti.

"Creoles are more fully developed languages than pidgins, generally having more lexical items and a broader array of grammatical distinctions."

"A Creole usually arises when speakers of one language become economically or politically dominant over speakers of another. A simplified or modified form of the dominant group's language (pidgin), used for communication between the two groups, may eventually become the native language of the less powerful community. Examples include Sea Island Creole (formerly Gullah, derived from English), spoken in South Carolina's Sea Islands; Haitian Creole (derived from French); and Papiamento (derived from Spanish and Portuguese), spoken in Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire."

Language and thought

Language was once thought to determine the way we think, but now linguists generally accept the theory that language influences the way we perceive and remember. There are conceptual differences between cultures, but these differences do not make mutual comprehension impossible.


Specific occasions demand certain levels or registers of discourse. Asking directions in Washington, giving a lecture at a university, delivering a sermon or meeting with friends at a restaurant all require the language user to follow rules of social discourse.

Requests and commands show a variation in register:

  • Would you please open the door?
  • Can you open the door?
  • Please open the door.
  • Open the door.
  • Open that door NOW!

The type of discourse is determined by the formality of the situation and what both the speaker and the listeners are expecting from each other. Finding the proper style and register in English is difficult; the result often is a mix of styles and levels of language:

  • Dunk the pieces of chicken in the beaten egg mixture. (Too colloquial)
  • My new acquaintance and I were able to exchange information about all the BS we were taught at our school. (Taboo)
  • The invention of modern machinery saved time and toil. (Too literary)
  • I wish to call on you, but I do not know where you reside. (Too formal)

(Adapted from Jain, 1981)

Competence and performance

There is a difference between having the knowledge of one's home language (L1) and a second language (L2). Linguistic competence is what one knows and ones performance is the actual behavior.

Linguistic competence is not conscious knowledge. You know the rules of your home language without being taught.

You know that the following are correct in English:

  • The trains are most crowded during the holidays.
  • Aren’t you thinking of a perambulator?
  • Wash that car before breakfast!

But if the word order is reversed:

  • Holidays the during crowded most are trains the.

The following is grammatical but still not right:

  • Colorless ideas sleep furiously.

Also the meaning may be clear although the statement is ungrammatical:

  • Is reading your father this book?