22 October 2013

The word is not the basic unit of language.

I'm sure I've said it before, but the word is not the basic, indivisible unit of language.

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:
  1. Morphemes (word roots and affixes)
  2. Word
  3. Phrase
  4. Task
These form a clear hierarchy built on selection. A word is a specific selection of morphemes. A phrase is a specific selection of words. Performing a classroom task requires a specific selection of phrases (and words).

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:

I sleep.
He eats.
She drinks.

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
These are still very contrived examples, but they feel more meaningful because they follow the patterns of real use.

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:
<person> <conjugation of to do>n't <verb>
This "phrase" would explain the prevalence of the "he doesn't X" over the rare "he Xs"... for certain verbs.


Yousef said...

I remember hearing about an old Latin exercise which had a similar idea: You'd start with a simple phrase like your example "I sleep," and keep adding more adverbials, phrases and clauses until you get something like "I sleep badly whenever that darn cat comes by and makes a racket outside my window." Would something like that also be an example of valency?

I like the idea of the four levels, and I would also make a case for having a good grasp of the morphemes of the language. Studying Russian at first was incredibly frustrating cause I found I could never remember the vocabulary I come across: words all seemed like they were just a string of nonsense syllables. Learning the affixes and roots gave me something logical to hook the meaning onto the words. And learning new words has become much easier. Great post!

Nìall Beag said...

Yes, once you start adding those adverbials, you're respecting the valency of the verb.

I didn't mean to suggest that those were the only four levels of abstraction where meaning occurs -- my point was that there's at least four, so trying to identify a single "most important" is a fool's errand.

I've always maintained that phrases aren't just a choice of words, but words and grammatical rules, so there's another layer. Unfortunately it doesn't fit so neatly on a hierarchy as phrases can use grammatical rules, but grammatical rules can also use phrases. The hierarchy was for demonstration only, not a definitive structure.

Yousef said...

I actually tried some kind of verb valency exercise in class yesterday. Got all the kids interested and participating!

I think the idea of organizing levels of abstraction, even if it's impossible to make a it perfect, has practical applications for the class. It might be a good diagnostic tool when the students are having a hard time understanding something.

Nìall Beag said...

Glad to hear it, Yousef. I've always felt that grammar awareness is a useful tool for learning, because once you can understand what's going on around you, it's so much easier to notice what's happening.

When I try to tell people this, they generally say "Ah, but you like grammar, most people don't."

The reason most people don't like grammar is because it is generally taught in a very abstract way that doesn't promote awareness and doesn't tie in to what you already know.

To put it more simply:
All real learning is fun. If the students aren't having fun, that's because they don't understand what's happening, so they're not learning.