LINGUIST List 14.2270

Fri Aug 29 2003

Disc: Iatsko's review: The Language of Language

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <karenlinguistlist.org>


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  1. Mark Donohue, Iatsko's review of "The Language of Language"

Message 1: Iatsko's review of "The Language of Language"

Date: Fri, 29 Aug 2003 09:57:14 +0800
From: Mark Donohue <markdonohue.cc>
Subject: Iatsko's review of "The Language of Language"



I would like to make some comments and additions to Viatcheslav 
Iatsko's recent review (Linguist 14.2217).

Cruz-Ferreira, Madalena (2003) The Language of Language: Core Concepts
in Linguistic Analysis, Prentice-Hall (Division of Pearson Education).

I have worked with Dr. Cruz-Ferreira (henceforth: C-F) in teaching,
and used this book, so I cannot claim to be non-partisan. But, by the
same token, I have first-hand experience of teaching with this book as
the textbook for an introductory course, and of seeing how, and
whether, it worked on a large group of undergraduate students, most of
whom had (clearly) never thought about the issues in this book before.

I shall not go through Iatsko's review point-by-point, but with to
address some areas which I feel have been inadvertently
misrepresented.

Iatsko writes:

This book, intended as an introduction to linguistics, .... it can be
characterized as a collection of lectures rather than a textbook.

This is hardly surprising; in her Preface C-F writes that the book
arose out of her lecture notes. So yes, it is a collection of
lectures: but a collection of lectures that, given thoughtful
instruction (adapting problem sets and assignments as necessary to the
different parts of the English-speaking world is no mean task) can
serve as the core of an introductory course. It is not programmatic in
any particular direction, other than towards the most general
principles of generative grammar, and so can be used in any
department. It requires work: but it is a very valuable resource.

The second chapter ''Linguistics: the language of language'' consists
of two sections. The first one entitled ''Science'' can be safely
skipped by the reader because it has nothing to do with language
analysis describing some characteristics of science and pseudoscience.
In my experience this is exactly the material that should not, at any
cost, be skipped: too often students attend courses, especially
introductory courses, expecting to be fed answers that can be plugged
into exam questions. A good introductory (or, for that matter,
advanced) course in linguistics (or any discipline) should firmly
break this school of thought: until students can be made aware of what
constitutes a valid argument, and what does not, they will not be able
to appreciate the non-arbitrariness of what they are being taught. For
any course in linguistics, but introductory courses in particular,
students should not be asked to simply blankly accept of believe any
conventions: they should be asked to challenge what they are being
taught, and to only accept any formalism after being convinced. But
all too often 'being convinced' equates to 'hearing it from the person
who will set the exam'. If we are to encourage enquiry, and genuine
investigation, then we must make clear from the outset what
constitutes 'proof' and 'argumentation', and make sure that students
are following these principles.

The second section
''Linguistics, language and languages'' touches upon the object,
method, purpose of linguistics, role of the English language, areas of
linguistic study.

It should be noted that this chapter contains some doubtful, vague and
somewhat misleading statements. 1) ''Prescriptivism is an ideology, it
is not science'' (p. 11). If the author means prescriptive grammar she
is wrong.
Quite possibly so; but if C-F mean's 'prescriptivism', in this 
context the belief that there is a single true way of speaking a 
language, then that certainly is an ideology. I certainly know of 
instances in which national languages have been prescribed without 
Iatsko's "careful observation of differences between different 
varieties of a given language", and I am sure they are not a 
minority. But this is clearly, and intentionally, a completely 
different thing to 'prescriptive grammar' (though I am not sure that 
prescriptive grammar is always based on those same principles of 
careful observation: I have worked with unwritten languages that 
prescribed against some grammatical phenomenon that the whole speech 
community employed.

2) ''Being the science of language, linguistics has:: a
method: empirical, that is based on observation'' (p. 15). This
statement is an oversimplification because linguistics employs
empirical as well as theoretical methods. For example analysis of
constituents is sure a theoretical method because resulting trees
represent internal hierarchical structures of sentences that can in no
way be directly observed.
This begs the question of 'observation': I can demonstrate, to my 
students' satisfaction, that NPs, for instance, have constituency, 
even though you cannot 'see' an NP, and there are no unique acoustic 
cues associated with them. But I think that we would all agree that 
theoretical models are only valid insofar as they are based on 
observed patterns.

3) In section 2.3 entitled ''Areas of
linguistic study'' the author missed a good opportunity to introduce
the reader to the structure of linguistics enumerating practical
applications of linguistic knowledge (speech therapy, language
teaching, literary studies, etc.) instead of describing branches of
linguistics outlined in the next chapters: morphology, phonetics,
phonology, syntax, lexical semantics, text grammar.

This comment confuses me: C-F does discuss these practical 
applications, but at the point at which they arise: a discussion of 
speech therapy will not mean anything until at least the basics of 
articulatory phonetics have been introduced, for instance.And that is 
what C-F does.

Chapter 8 ''The grammar of sentences: slots and phrases'' deals with 
syntax, constituent analysis, phrase structure. This chapter has some 
disputable points. 1) The sentence ''boy that
ate the durian'' marked as ungrammatical (p. 85) seems grammatical.
I can see that 'boy [ that ate the durian]' might be interpreted as 
an NP lacking an article (and so still ungrammatical), but certainly 
as a sentence it can only be considered ungrammatical.

2)
tree diagram of the noun phrase ''the cheap durian'' (p. 91) seems
incorrect because the determiner is shown as a sister of Adjective and
Noun. In fact the determiner relates to the rest of the noun phrase as
a whole. The same goes to the noun phrase ''a patched eye''.
This is an example what C-F discusses in her preface: there are many 
more phrase structure rules and possibilities than she mentions (the 
careful reader will also notice the complete absence of discussion of 
Adjective Phrases: useful material for assignments or exam questions, 
and workable too if the students have been trained well enough in 
argumentation), just as there are more than the 17 phonemes in 
English that C-F discusses in the book. But it is not WRONG to claim 
that a determiner and noun (and maybe adjective as well) constitute a 
single constituent (which we can label NP, though many will prefer 
DP). The point is that it is quite easy to demonstrate this 
constituency to even an introductory student's satisfaction, while 
demonstrating the constituency of [Adj N] without a determiner is 
much harder, and involves the sort of argumentation that slips past 
many beginning students.

The book has he following advantages. 1) Plain and clear language,
simple comparisons with facts from everyday life that help students to
better understand described linguistic phenomena; 2) logical
structure. The book starts with characterizing general features of
science and linguistics and proceeds to linguistic subfields.

Having used this book, and seen students use it, I cannot fault this 
characterisation. But then Iatsko compares C-F's book with another:

1) ''Working with Texts'' is much
better illustrated. To stir readers' curiosity Carter et al use
advertisements, cartoons, Web pages, etc. In Cruz-Ferreira's book the
reader can find only diagrams and tables, the first of them appearing
in the 5th chapter, previous chapters not being illustrated at all.

2)
''Working with Texts'' has extensive activities, answers and
commentaries on activities that can successfully be used in
classroom.

(Carter, R. et al (2001) Working with Texts: A Core Introduction to
Language Analysis. London & New York: Routledge)

Iatsko makes extensive comparison with "Working with Texts", pointing 
out many features of that book that leave "Language of Language" 
behind (specifically illustrations, and exercises): but he is 
comparing a $75, 342 page second-edition book with a 163-page book 
that sells here for about USD$10. They are clearly books with 
different intents. I have not read Carter's book; I am happy to 
accept that it is a good introduction to language analysis through 
texts; but I doubt that a textual approach can be any more 
informative about language acquisition, multilingualism issues, or 
articulatory phonetics. These topics, among others, are covered by 
C-F's book at a fraction of the price: all students that I have ever 
met consider that factor as much as any other.

''Some food for thought'' section in chapter 1 contains the following 
citation from O. Wilde: ''Nothing that is worth knowing can be 
taught''. What is the message of this citation? That linguistics 
can't be taught, or that it isn't worth knowing?

I think there are two messages: one it the implicit challenge to 
students that they should not simply accept at face value (this 
hearkens back to chapter 2). The other, more direct, is that no 
amount of teaching can MAKE someone learn: they have to do that. 
Anyone who has taught linguistics knows that it is the hands-on work 
that makes students remember things, not the lectures filled with 
facts and wisdom.

Mark Donohue
Department of English, Language, and Literature,
National University of Singapore
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