Understanding how languages work is important for ESL teachers.

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 (Magrath, D., June 6, 2018).

How are language and thought connected? Does language determine thought?

The ostensible purpose of language is to transmit thoughts from one mind to another. Language represents thought, but does it also determine thought?(Psychology Today, August 8, 2018)

Take the example of colors. Different speakers perceive colors differently.

The number of basic color terms varies quite considerably from one language to another. Dani, spoken in New Guinea, and Bassa, spoken in Liberia and Sierra Leone, each have no more than two color terms, one for dark/cool colors and the other for light/warm colors.

But, obviously, speakers of Dani and Bassa are able to perceive, and think about, more than two colors(How the Language You Speak Influences the Way You Think).

Greek is cited often as an example of language and thought being tied together. Ancient Greek has many terms for “love.”

In contrast to modern Greek, ancient Greek, in common with many ancient languages, has no specific word for blue, leaving Homer to speak about "the wine-dark sea." But the Ancient Greeks did have several words for “love,” including philia, eros, storge, and agape, each one referring to a different type or concept of love. This means that they could speak more precisely about love, but does it also mean that they could think more precisely about love, and, as a result, have more fulfilled love lives? (How the Language You Speak Influences the Way You Think)

Another difference is how languages express time.

In English and Swedish, people tend to speak of time in terms of distance: “I won’t be long”; “Let’s look at the weather for the week ahead”; “His drinking caught up with him." But in Spanish or Greek, people tend to speak of time in terms of size or volume—for example, in Spanish, hacemos una pequeña pausa ("let’s have a small break") rather than corta pausa ("short break"). More generally, mucho tiempo ("much time") is preferred to largo tiempo ("long time"), and, in Greek, poli ora to makry kroniko diastema (How the Language You Speak Influences the Way You Think).

Language change

In L1 acquisition, children learn sounds and later break them down into words.

Words are often seen as the building blocks of languages. But as children we don’t learn lists of words like we might in a school language class. We learn longer strings of sounds and break them up into words as we grow up (Hadikin, G., April 5, 2019).

The author views a parallel between language change and biological evolution.

In this view, chunks of new language get initiated by people like a new gene mutating in biology (Evolution: how the theory is inspiring a new way of understanding language).

An expression or idiom can spread through a language of popular or it could die out like a random genetic mutation that is not beneficial.

Take for instance the expression of something “sparking joy” or something “not sparking joy”…New expressions such as these spread around the community depending on whether people find the expression useful, funny or if it in any way improves their lives so that they continue using and modifying the expression. If an expression confuses people or makes the speaker look weird, it will quickly disappear from the lexical gene pool (Evolution: how the theory is inspiring a new way of understanding language).

A good example is the word “Brexit,” which suddenly appeared in news reports in 2016.

We all know that the word “Brexit” has now got a firm footing from its earliest users quite literally spreading the word (Evolution: how the theory is inspiring a new way of understanding language).

L2 learners need to realize that they can’t just substitute one word for another without changing the meaning. Even a small nuance could interfere with the message.

There is potential that by reflecting on, and discussing a lexical selection approach, language students will think more about the importance of what words go together in different situations. Language learners often think they can simply swap a verb or an adjective for any other verb or adjective without understanding the risk of producing a problematic or confusing sentence (Evolution: how the theory is inspiring a new way of understanding language).

Example of language change in Switzerland: Language development

A new language, Le Bolze,developed in Switzerland as people from different linguistic regions came together in cities.

While the exact origins of the language are unknown, many believe that Bolze was created during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century, when people began to migrate from the countryside into cities as jobs became available during the industrial boom (Harris, M., April 23, 2019).

It was created as a lingua franca, so people could communicate.

These workers needed a way to understand one another and work together. So, they merged their mother tongues to create a new language (The Swiss language that few know).

Here is a good definition of Le Bolze:

Bolze is a conversational melding of Swiss German and French, using the two languages to create a completely new version. Passed from generation to generation orally, and only found in the Basse-Ville of Fribourg, the few remaining Bolze speakers only speak it to one another in order to continue their cultural heritage along the shore of the river and within the stone walls that border their neighborhood (The Swiss language that few know).

One must know both German and French to communicate in Le Bolze; just knowing Le Bolze by itself is not enough. However, knowing French and German does not make one able to use Le Bolze. It must be learned as a third language.

While Bolze remains something of a mystery to outsiders— and is now only spoken by a handful of locals — it continues to hold meaning to the citizens of Basse-Ville. To them, it’s more than a language; it is a fusion of language, politics and culture that came about through a uniquely shared history during the Industrial Revolution (The Swiss language that few know).

Teaching hint No. 1

Teachers can teach the standard dialect while recognizing the non-standard as a legitimate means of communication.

Language instruction should include norms of language use, along with standard English structures. Speaking a standard dialect includes the use of particular conversational styles as well as particular language forms (Vernacular dialects in U.S. schools).

Other languages have dialects, including the students’ home languages. Examples include Standard Arabic and regional dialects such as Egyptian, Lebanese, and Moroccan and the different varieties of Spanish such as Castilian (Spain), Cuban and Venezuelan.

Teaching hint No. 2

Teachers need to be aware that the differences between speech and writing vary across languages. English and related languages use an alphabetic system with others go in a different direction.

In a different type of script, the syllabary, the basic unit, corresponds to a spoken syllable; Japanese and Cherokee use this system. In logographic script, e.g. Chinese, each character corresponds to an entire morpheme (usually a word) (Bright, W., Oct. 6, 2006).

Speech and writing convey information, but speech adds nuances not found in writing such as stress and intonation. The written system does not always indicate pronunciation.

Most literate people can convey the same messages in either speech or writing, but speech typically conveys more explicit information than writing. Hebrew and Arabic scripts indicate consonants but often omit symbols for vowels. In Chinese, the symbols that correspond to words may give no indication of pronunciation, or only partial cues(What's the difference between speech and writing?).

In the cases of languages with diglossia, the written language is considered the standard. In Arabic, for example, the literary form (H) is the language of written communication and the Koran, while the colloquial dialects (L) are used for everyday speaking.

Spoken languages have dialects—forms varying across geographical areas and social groups. But in complex societies that use writing, the needs of communication encourage moves toward a single written norm, codified by governmental, educational, and literary institutions (What's the difference between speech and writing?).

Arabic learners are facing cultural problems when learning L1.

One source of conflict for students from the Arabic world is that the status of Arabic. Mahmoud al-Batal, textbook author, is cited in the article“A Living Language” (Summer/Fall 2017) on the situation:

Al Batal describes language pedagogy in the Arab world as facing a crisis: “We are now graduating people from schools and universities who are not comfortable in their native language and have no interest in their mother tongue (A Living Language, 28).”

According to The Main Gate article, AUB (American University of Beirut) students prefer academic English to express complex academic ideas since the Arabic that they have learned in school is classical Arabic and the texts that they have studied are pre-modern texts that they really can’t relate to. Al-Batal wants to make Arabic a living language one rather than a dead literary one. In his interview with The Main Gate, he says:

“Arabic Language is the language of performance,” he says. “I want to bring it down to the level of communication. I want the focus for students writing in Arabic to be on the communication of ideas, not on the ornamental stuff.” (28)

The varieties of Arabic are considered dialects. The (H) is Modern Standard or Classical, and the (L) is spoken or colloquial.