From one perspective, in all but completely analytical languages, there are word roots and affixes that words can be divided into. The English presuppose can only really be thought of in English as two elements (pre- and suppose), but the Spanish equivalent presuponer retains the four elements of its Latin origin (pre su(p) pon er). It is not, therefore indivisible.
So, am I proposing that we spend a lot of time learning the affixes and roots independently? No.
You see, the affixes and roots only gain any real conceptual meaning once they are combined into words that have concrete meaning. An overly explicit focus on the meaning of prefixes becomes an academic exercise, rather than language learning. NB: I say an overly explicit focus as there must be some focus or you're going to introduce a lot of extra work -- all the pose verbs (suppose, oppose, propose, impose, etc) in Spanish follow the same conjugation -- the irregular verb poner that each incorporates. If you don't learn that poner is a recurring element, you either memorise all the verbs independently or start making mistakes.
Now, rereading the last paragraph, I notice that I have unconsciously switched from discussing the root pon and the infinitival suffix er to talking about the "element" poner. This demonstrates quite aptly the point I was trying to make in this piece: as language users, we maintain multiple levels of abstraction simultaneously, and at each level, we conceptualise a unit of meaning. Teaching and learning must focus on all units of meaning.
But what does that mean, "all units of meaning"?
The idiom principle and lexical approach suggest that meaning lies in the phrase level, suggesting that the fixed phrase is the indivisible unit of meaning.
The communicative approach and Total Physical Response suggest something similar, stating that meaning is only given to language through use to solve problems.
So here we've already catalogued four levels of abstract that define units of meaning:
- Morphemes (word roots and affixes)
The flaw in most approaches is that they place excessive emphasis on individual levels of abstraction. The most infuriating part of it is that they often place excessive emphasis on multiple levels of abstraction. If this seems paradoxical, consider this stereotype of a classroom situation.
The phrase Would you like a banana? is introduced and practiced (phrase focus). Now the banana is replaced with an apple, an orange, a lemon and a strawberry. There is the illusion that we're still phrase focused, but in fact we've switched into word focus and are effectively simply listing fruit vocabulary. There is no need to even think about the meaning of the Would you like part, and you descend into rote repetition; it becomes a mere string of sounds before the one bit that actually needs you to think. In the end, we're memorising a list of phrases and a list of words -- there is no greater model of meaning built.
But there's another practice in teaching that undermines meaning even more, and it manifests itself clearest in verb drills. Consider:
How much meaning do these individual utterances have? I argue very little. Everyone sleeps. Everyone eats. Everyone drinks... unless this last one is understatement and you're telling me she's an alcoholic.
But what do we need to make these meaningful? Part of the answer is in the valency or transitivity of the verbs. In English, almost all verbs can be used intransitively (ie with no noun phrase following as direct object or predicate), and in this sense it means "this person carries out this activity with some degree of frequency", but the more common the verb is, the less common this form is. I mean, he skydives is fair enough, because you don't expect it, but he talks is extremely unlikely because, well, doesn't everybody?
So if I'm asked to translate something that doesn't really mean anything to me, it's always going to be a rote exercise. Even if I'm not translating, and I'm just conjugating within the language, changing comer to come produces an utterance just as devoid of meaning as the English he eats, and language without meaning is nothing. The obvious solution is to use transitive patterns of the verb, adding in objects to make a more meaningful utterence -- he eats fish, they don't eat meat etc.
But that doesn't work for I sleep, because sleep is intransitive, so never takes an object.
So this is where the idea of verb valency comes in. The term is taken from Chemistry, where it refers to the number of bonds atoms can make, and here refers to the number of arguments a verb can take. "Arguments" in this context refers to a wider range of items than simply the objects of the transitive verb -- the subject and any adverbials are also classed as arguments.
What's missing in the utterance I sleep? An adverbial. It would become natural as soon as it had an adverbial of quality, time or place. eg:
- I sleep badly
- I sleep during the day
- I sleep in a bed
The concept of valency is far more appropriate here than the idea of "fixed phrases" with "slots" for individual words, as otherwise we end up with rather minimalist "phrases" like the following:
This "phrase" would explain the prevalence of the "he doesn't X" over the rare "he Xs"... for certain verbs.