In this essay, ‘language’ functions beyond the symbolic mode of communication employed by some pets and other animals. It involves sentences that include words with denotative meanings: for example, “That is a cat.” Furthermore, words and phrases often convey connotative elements: the association of cats with stealth or spite, for instance, or the maxim ‘equal pay for equal work’, which evokes gender politics for those attuned to that context. Language has certain ‘design features’, particularly the ‘perception of underlying structures’ (Cook, 2009): “That is a cat” = Subject Verb Object. ‘Communicative competence’ (CC) is the measure of an agent’s ability to communicate linguistic meaning in context. The latter part of this definition marks what Constant Leung describes as ‘a break with an overly grammar-based paradigm’ (Leung, 2005, p.121).
Leung’s cautionary adverb acknowledges that ‘unconscious knowledge’ of the rules governing speech (‘linguistic competence’ (LC)) is essential to language and its study (Denham and Lobeck, 2009, p.21). However, he refers to Noam Chomsky who evinces Plato’s theory of forms with his conceptualisation of the perfect language user. This idealised form (or eidos) is insusceptible to ‘grammatically irrelevant conditions [such] as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest’ (Chomsky, 1965, p.3). Chomsky seeks to represent activity in the mind, so for him, in this context, language in performance is irrelevant. Yet for proponents of CC it is essential. This ‘break’ must be contextualised to assess its utility. Chomsky supplanted the behaviorist paradigm in a coup that began with his review of Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s (1904-1990) Verbal Behaviour (1957) (Chomsky, 1959).
Skinner’s account of language development might be abridged as follows: A baby babbles randomly. Doting parents ignore gibberish but respond positively to sounds like “mummy” or “water”. This reinforcement, in a darwinian fashion, acts as a selective pressure and language proficiency develops in a mnemonic and operantly conditioned way. Of course, an abridged account unfairly represents Skinner’s empirical observations and insights, but it facilitates a truncated Chomskyan response.
First, although the degree and manner of reinforcement must vary between families and across cultures, the fact that all normal children acquire essentially comparable grammars of great complexity with remarkable rapidity suggests that human beings are somehow specially designed to do this. (Chomsky, 1959)
Second, language users can produce and perceive a veritable infinity of different sentences, yet this is unaccounted for in the behaviourist paradigm. Third, case studies suggest that children isolated from language during a formative period later struggle to acquire it (Pinker, 1994, pp.277-278; Candland, 1996; Emmorey, 2001, p.225). This ‘critical period hypothesis’ is controversial (see Singleton and Ryan, 2004, pp.31-60) yet compelling, and the behaviourist account makes no provision for age-dependant conditioning.
The Chomskyan explanation is an innate ‘universal grammar’ (Pinker, 1994, p.6) that inaugurates linguistic competence. Guy Cook remarks:
If we accept Chomsky's view, language, as an object of academic enquiry, becomes something more biological than social, and similarities between languages outweigh differences. (Cook, 2003, p.42)
Chomsky conceives the eidos to theorise about how language actually works. He brings to mind an in-joke from theoretical physics, “Now, imagine a spherical cow…” as he conceptualises a simplified model for analytical focus. However, if interaction is necessary for language acquisition, then biological structures are not sufficient. The antecedent could be a fulcrum for CC proponent Dell Hymes (1927-2009).
Hymes is often emotive: ‘All the difficulties that confront the children and ourselves seem swept from view’ (Hymes, 1971), which fails to repudiate Chomsky’s rationalism. Hymes questions the adequacy (and ethicality) of Chomsky’s eidos; but they are at cross purposes. Hymes argues that content must inform competence; yet abstraction filters content. Jean Berko explored this empirically using nonce words to test children for innate knowledge of morphological rules, specifically how they used allomorphs that signal the past tense of regular verbs (Berko, 1958). Berko is cautious. Others interpret her results to endorse LC (Murphy, 2011). However, a higher pass rate would more safely support this. Terry Klafehn replicated the test with Japanese children and concluded that performance was ‘consistent with the predictions of a usage-based approach’ (Klafehn, 2013, p.182).
In any case, as Pinker observes:
Whatever innate grammatical abilities there are, they are too schematic to generate speech, words, and grammatical constructions on their own. (Pinker, 1994, p.277)
In linguistic terms, at least for a formative period, discourse seems to be essential and the simplified human unit is two, which takes language, at least partially, out of the eidos’ head.
This is the ‘break’.
But discourse alone does not explain language in use. Sociocultural elements, like a linguistic forlorn hope, tumble through the breach: layered meanings, communication goals, contexts; language groups, tribes, populations, ancestors; potentially vast networks of people producing big data for theoretical analysis (see Roy, 2011).
Hymes perceives ideology in Chomsky’s method:
It takes the absence of a place for sociocultural factors, and the linking of performance to imperfection, to disclose an ideological aspect to the theoretical standpoint. (Hymes, 1971)
Following hard upon his emotive arguments it is tempting to dismiss this as ad hominem. Chomsky’s ‘homogeneous speech community’ (1965, p.3) is ‘idealized’ [sic] not ideological (1965, pp.24,37,41). However, Hymes evokes the notion that, where native language speaking authorities exist, they are maintained by an ideological elite: for example, the Académie française. Although, even egalitarians might fear a new Tower of Babel:
English … is in particular used by so many non-native speakers, that if we are not careful … the language will break up … into different languages. (Trudgill, 1998, in Jenkins, 2002, p.86)
Hymes identifies four CC parameters: ‘possibility’, knowledge of the rules in a Chomskyan sense; ‘feasibility’, the construction of a sentence relative to an agent’s ability to process it; ‘appropriateness’, language in context; ‘attestedness’, knowledge of how things are said: collocations such as “salt and pepper” not “pepper and salt”, for instance. According to Cook, some educators ‘distorted and misinterpreted’ these ideas (2003, p.46), which suggests that, while CC has contributed to pedagogic doctrine in the context of English language teaching (ELT) (Leung, 2005), this does not necessarily contribute to our understanding of language in use. Given Hymes’ assertion of Chomsky’s ‘ideological aspect’ it is ironic to contemplate a linguistic elite pumping CC dogma into the ELT world.
However, LC is insufficient. Sarah Griffin recounts miscommunication. Her South African friend wanted to ‘go to Splashy Fen in the Underberg’ (Griffin, 2016). The preposition and preceding verb phrase suggest a location. The preposition ‘in’ might be interchangeable with ‘at’. The verb ‘splash’ is rendered adjective, or perhaps adverbial if ‘Fen’ means ‘fen-like’. Griffin capitalises Splashy Fen, indicating a proper noun, but this is phonetically opaque. A sense of the speaker’s intention is gleaned, but high competence demands local knowledge of denotations, connotations and ‘scripts’ (Schank and Abelson, 2013). In another example: disgruntled complainers in the military are told, “Charlie six oh one”. C601 is code for a Kraken missile. Phonetically, “Kraken” approximates “Crack on”, a colloquialism meaning, “Get on with it” (Holden, 2016). Evidently, language demands convention, which registers John Locke’s (1632-1704) sensible notion that words denote ideas through social agreement (Locke, 1996). However, despite its ‘possibility’ parameter, CC fails to satisfy Chomsky’s rationalism. Michael Halliday mediates Hymes and Chomsky by focusing on the underlying, dynamic systems by which language users create meaning within existing social contexts. This ‘social semiotic’ acknowledges the importance of interaction and social structures but emphasises language over culture, which goes some way towards linking the structural demands of Chomsky’s rationalism with modes of language in the ‘living environment’ (Halliday, 2007, p.262, in The Open University, 2016).
In conclusion, the evidence supporting CC’s emphasis on language in performance is often anecdotal. It is weak in this respect and open to misinterpretation. However, LC offers an incomplete account because appropriateness and sociocultural elements seem crucial to linguistic understanding. Therefore, CC contributes to our understanding of language in use because it focuses our attention on the void left by LC, but refinements such as the social semiotic are necessary to harmonise it with Chomsky’s rationalism.
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