Thursday, 24 February 2011

Interacting with others in on-line environments

I think it is very interesting to notice how the written form of language has acquired an increasing salience over the last few years, especially after the emergence of social networking platforms, such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc. The ever-growing popularity of writing in mainstream culture has made me think, once more, of the fact that the written form of language is not natural, it is rather artificial, complex, and very difficult to master. I would never say, however, that writing is a pseudo-skill, some sort of ‘parasite’ of spoken language, as more than a few authors have implied (for further information on this topic, see Sapir’s seminal work on cultural studies Culture, religion and personality (1949), in which the author criticizes the Cartesian idea of ‘writing as a “by-product” of oral interaction’). Writing, just as speech, is a crystal-clear reflection of the cognitive processes by which we comprehend the world. Nevertheless, there are obvious and pervading differences between these two forms of language, which I’ll try to address, very succinctly, in the following lines.

1. The spoken form of language is natural; it doesn’t have to be formally learnt through conscientious schooling. Writing is a skill we develop only after carefully directed attempts, years of schooling and, perhaps, great effort from both teachers and students. Some would say that speech is simply acquired, while writing is learnt (see Gass and Selinker (1994) Second Language Acquisition. An introductory course, for further information on the acquisition of language skills. Brown, H.D. (2000) Principles of Language Learning and Teaching also offers a very thorough explanation of the so-called distinction between language ‘acquisition’ and ‘learning’).

2. Because of the very fact that oral language is natural, inherent to human existence and culture, nobody seems to control, at least not successfully, the speech realizations of people; the written form of language is ruled by academies, dictionaries, universities, scientific publications, the media, etc., in an effort to guarantee that all members of a particular community understand each other, through clear texts that fit into the regulations and canons of their respective speech community.

3. Speech is fleeting; writing is long-lasting. Writers have the chance to draft, revise, and rewrite their texts, whereas speakers are subject to the consequences of the things they say, without any major chance to correct their propositions, or to make adjustments so that their production would fit better into the restricted repertoire of the intended audience of their texts.

Alright, now, I have digressed very much from the main topic of this post, which is the nature of the language we use when communicating with others in on-line environments. I think that, when posting comments on an internet site, we need to bear in mind the characteristics of the written text I have, very briefly, discussed so far. Let’s think of the following:

1. When posting a comment in, let’s say, a blog, are we going to be readily available in the case that our reader had a question about the text?
2. What does the fact that the written text excludes a few very important extralinguistic features that carry a great load of meaning, such as gesturing, breathing, sighing, etc., imply in our web-based working arena?
3. How would we like to be addressed by others when interacting in on-line environments?
I would say that there are two simple answers for these three questions:

(a) Our posts in any web-based platform should always be very clear, concise, coherent, cohesive, and self-explanatory. This ‘suggestion’ matches the ones provided in the material “Netiquette” E-guide for social interaction and communicating electronically”, available in, under the subtitles “Be clear” and “Be brief”. I do think I’m really flouting the part of the suggestion which refers to conciseness: this post is getting awfully long! However, I believe that certain issues are worth dedicating a few more lines than others; I would say that the length of our on-line posts depends on the nature of the topics that are addressed. Netiquette, our business at the moment, is key in on-line interactions, hence, the size of my post! J
(b) We should address our interlocutor with respect, politeness, and affability. The biblical Golden Rule definitely applies here![1] We should always try and treat others the way we would like to be treated. This ‘suggestion’ matches the contents of the website I quoted above (see the subtitles “Use appropriate language”, “Make a good impression”, “Consider others”, “Cite others’ work you use”, and “Don’t respond to “flames” or personal attacks”.

Now, the Practical Communication Principles (PCPs)[2], which you can find on-line in, are very interesting. I find the first of these, “Thank, acknowledge and support people freely”, very useful and absolutely necessary when communicating with others in on-line environments. Going back to the features of written texts, we have to recall the fact that we cannot see our reader, nor the writer of a post, so, how do we show the others that we are interested in whatever they are saying? How do we let the others know that we are ‘tuned’ and following the issues that are raised? Well, we have to actively reply to the participation, the posts, of our peers. We have to try and show that it was worth taking the time to read the post and make a comment about it. Even if we disagree with the propositions of our colleagues, there is, usually, something good to point out in anyone’s production, so why don’t we just show that we care? A “thank you for your post!” might be a good start. I’m not saying that we cannot express our disagreement, if we happen to disagree with anyone’s post, what I’m saying is that, as in the evaluation of the learning process of a foreign language, we should always highlight the achievement, the positive, and comment politely, respectfully, about the aspects on which we disagree, proposing, when possible and/or needed, alternatives. This principle is very much connected to PCP2, “Acknowledge before differing”. PCP3 is absolutely important, of course: “Speak from your own perspective (or at least some specified perspective)”; we cannot present our ideas as the ultimate truth of it all, we basically write about our opinions, our perception of the phenomena of reality. I particularly liked one abbreviation that is presented on the website quoted above: IMHO, which stands for “In my humble opinion”. I think that that is a very lovely way to start a reply, especially if we are about to show disagreement!

Well, guys, I think that this is pretty much everything I have to say right now. I hope that my views are of your interest. I’m looking forward to reading your comments!


[1] I’m not particularly religious, I’m just trying to put forward a well-intended reference; it is not my intention to be offensive.
[2] You can find the following reference quoted in the website I cite on the text above: Bob Zimmer and GaryAlexander, "The Rogerian Interface: For open, warm empathy in computer mediated collaborative learning", Innovations in Education and Training International , 33, 1 (1996), pp. 13-21, Kogan Page.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Benefits of studying literature

I originally posted these ideas as a comment on a facebook group (

I tend to think, most of the times, that literature is a sort of living organism since it seeks to portray an image of the meanings socially created and shared. Human interaction through language structures the complex net of texts that make up the reality of the existence of man.
It is truly interesting to notice how (well pointed out by Sapir) the experience of one man is, simply said, the experience of all mankind; we try to attain basically the same goals, going through, roughly, the same ordeals: suffering, heartbreaks, war, revenge, among many others. And yet, the particular ways the life of each human being is so authentic, so irreplaceable, that no generalization seems to be enough to account for the absolute heterogeinity that defines the nature of the human species.
Language is a superior faculty of men, however, linguistic interaction is a basic need for men living in society. Texts (in the Hallidayan tradition) constitute the intrinsic result of the semantic exchange maintained by people. Literature is a conscientious attempt to represent the realities of all kinds of events and doings. If we perceive literature as a reflection of the 'grammar of the social acts', a mixture of the human culture, its language and social traits, we can come up with the immediate conclusion that literature is distintively human and necessarily pervasive, that is, the narration of life, the account of the human experience, as expressed through intelectual struggle and aesthetic drives, just demonstrates the natural need of people to communicate their meanings. We are made to communicate meanings, and literature is, certainly, one of our most effective paths to do such a thing.
Of course, I agree with the rest of the friends and Professors who struggled to answer your most interesting question: literature allows us to be aware of the other, opening a way of understanding and empathy. However, I see human beings as natural producers of texts, and basically, all meaningful interaction put to work after intelectual and aesthetic interests is, evidently, literature, and here I'm taking one of the ideas proposed by Derrida in 'Acts of Literature', dissertation in which literature is decomposed as the 'authentic semiosis of the social meaning exchange filtered by purposeful endeavor'.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language

Reflections about Richards, J., (2002), Richards, J. (2005), and personal perceptions of the current practice in the field.
All human learning is of a complexity that is yet to be completely understood, fact that is revealed by the many approaches to teaching that emerge in a rather frequent basis. People are always learning, no matter the situation and/or context in which they might be, and all attitudes towards natural phenomena seem to reflect the inner workings of a purely linguistic and semiotic cognition. In fact, language is regarded as the highest ability within the superior skills possessed by the neo-cortex, rational brain; it is such symbolic thinking and its physical, linguistic form what has allowed people to work upon their realities to build a perception of the world that surrounds them, as well as acting on it. Therefore, it may be argued, with no risk of being disloyal to factual truth, that all reality is built with and through linguistic means, since language represents the greatest bridge between the human mind and the concrete world.
Then, having realized the utter complexity of our object of study, a question arises almost immediately: how can we teach such an abstract, complicated, multilayered and living organism as language? And as a matter of fact, it might even be feasible to wonder if we are whether in conditions to ever teach effectively such ability. However, there is historic evidence that leads us to affirm that all naturally acquired behavior can also be learned by coordinated instruction (Chomsky, N., 1968). Now, the real problem posed by the need to teach a language is not a supposedly limited skill to teach such language, but rather, how we can teach it, that is, what methodologies are more suitable to teach a language and its different levels of competence and performance? The most relevant task of the teaching practitioner is not to have a deeply rooted understanding of the intricacies implied in language processing –although some knowledge of such systems is necessary–, the teacher of languages should be rather concerned with the different methodological approaches that have to be applied in the classroom so that the learners get to actually attain the desired command of the language (Richards, J., and Rodgers., T., 1986).
J.C. Richards, in his 30 years of TEFL/TESL: A personal reflection (2002), discusses the emergence of many different methodological approaches to teaching languages –English, specifically. He admits that up to the twenty years that followed the end of the Second World War, teaching practices based on structural views of language were in vogue. These ‘structural practices’ perceived language basically as a behavior whose mastery people have to learn though orchestrated training: the production of linguistic forms was highly praised, since one of the main premises of the edgy linguistic study principles of the time stated that it was the production of language and not its processing what was central in all objective, positive study, specifically, oral production, because of its primacy over the written form of language. This assumption derived on the emergence of the canon oral drills that were an inseparable feature of the approaches of the time. Pronunciation played a very important role in the language classroom, and the correction of errors in speaking was seen as the straightening of flawed behavior, just as in any other of the skills. Authentic production or use of the language was not introduced in the class until a specified amount of structures were learned, and linguistic accuracy constituted the central goal of the activities executed in class.
Richards also points to the fact that native-like performance was sought as the main goal of the language instruction, and that grammar played a key role in the exemplification of language. Skills such as writing were taught basically through the imitation of particular patterns, which were, in turn, well defined structures. The audio-lingual method, for instance, praised the teaching of speaking through the reading of dialogs and their later imitation, so that the teacher had the opportunity to correct the language outcome of the students, and students memorized the structures of language. The fact that language structures, grammar, was incessantly taught is not really a main point of attention in such structural approaches, the main issue is that the grammar of language was taught without a context, detached from the rest of language production, and in fact, there was no authentic goal in teaching isolated chunks of language, therefore, the goal of all language teaching was to have students attaining linguistic competence, that is, the knowledge of the abstract rules underlying linguistic performance (Chomsky, N., 1968).
Two other features of the ‘structural’ and ‘cognitive’ methodologies to teaching English are the predominant role of the teacher in class, and a mechanical, detached way to teach the language skills. The language teacher is perceived as the model, a character that has a superior command of the language, and therefore is rightly entitled to instruct students in the correct usage of the linguistic code; the teacher speaks and students repeat, the teacher sets an example and students have to follow it so as to gain accuracy. Students are methodology consumers, and language content is the focus of the instruction. Conversely, skills such as speaking or writing were taught without a sense of authenticity, that is, activities implied the observation and repetition of patterns, with no attention to actual use of such patterns in a realistic context; again, the goal of the instruction was to lead students towards the acquisition of a native-like linguistic competence.
However, in the last 40 years, an increasing emergence of methodologies has been witnessed. The cognitive and later, the humanistic and constructivist revolutions have pervasively changed our perception of which practices should be part of the teaching of English. Richards J.C., in his Communicative Language Teaching Today (2005), refers to a ‘paradigm shift’ when discussing the turning point in which Communicative Language Teaching or CLT was assumed as the most desirable framework to teach languages, as well as being the allegedly most effective one.
Due to the fact that CLT is the currently leading tendency in language teaching, allow me to introduce the ‘I’ element in this paper, since humanism itself describes the subjective experience as the definite realization of any theoretical construct; and most of my own schooling in language teaching has been carried out within the framework of CLT. Therefore, I can recall my experience in both the different English language acquisition courses taken at Instituto Pedagógico de Caracas (IPC) and the tasks I had to carry out during the ‘Fases’ of teaching practice in the same institution. The key feature of the English courses I took was the integration of skills that CLT most praises as one of its inseparable characteristics, since in real life, language users integrate all skills to transmit and receive meanings, that is, the negotiation of meaning in authentic situations is carried out by using, basically, more than one skill at the same time, and applying diverse strategies to deal with information. Communication was also a defining goal in class, since CLT seeks to have students attaining a Communicative Competence, that is, the ability to communicate with others fluently, with no major restrictions in spite of the potential linguistic lacks the learner might have.
In ‘Fase de Integración Docencia –Administración’ (IDA) I definitely grasped the concept of using activities that are contextualized and have an authentic drive: the learners whose instruction I was in charge of got bored and uninterested in class when I did not make the effort to bring activities to which they could relate. However, the learning process seemed to be more effective when I included contents – not linguistic contents, but topics guiding the teaching of all skills and purposes of language (texts, in the Hallidayan sense) – that appealed to the context, culture and strategies applied by the learners themselves. (Halliday, M., and Hasan R., 1989).
After I first had pedagogic contact with real learners in the context of a secondary school, in ‘Fase de IDA’, my conviction of using the best of all approaches increased. And probably, more than the ‘best’ out of the approaches, I am aware of the fact that sometimes ‘the best’ is not necessarily convenient or even practical. So, English language teaching requires a large dose of eclecticism, but the teacher also has to keep a critical view towards which methodologies to apply, when, with what sort of learners and with which pace and contents. The teaching syllabus, now more than ever, also has to consider the need to make learners aware of the other, as well as their culture and the culture of their peers all over the world. English language teaching, and in fact, all language teaching, has to allow learners to become aware of diversity, not only of interculturality, but also of the multicultural differences within his/her own society. Now more than ever, I believe in a dual-goal teaching of English: learners have to gain communicative competence, but a literary competence, the ability of handling with cultural texts (again, in the Hallidayan sense) is of utter importance in guiding learners towards their self-development as integral beings.

Halliday, M.A.K. and Hasan R. (1989). Language, context and text. Aspects of
language in a social-semiotic perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richards, J.C. (2005). Communicative Language Teaching Today [On-line
article]. The Regional Language Centre (RELC). Available in:
today-v2.pdf [Consulted: April 26, 2008].

Richards, J.C. (2002). 30 Years of TEFL/TESL: A Personal Reflection [On-line
article]. The Regional Language Centre (RELC). Available in: [Consulted:
April 26, 2008].

Richards, J.C., and Rodgers, T.S. (1986). Approaches and Methods in Language
Teaching, A description and analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Monday, 2 June 2008


Hi. How was your day?
Ok. Everything’s ok.
Ok. Are you hungry?
Not yet, no.
Ok. I’m going out. Ok?
Great. Where are you going? I mean, when are you coming back?
Don’t really know. I’ll call you if it takes too long, ok?
You don’t want me to stay, do you?
Don’t be silly!
Could you please get a bottle of milk, please?
Don’t think I’ll be able to; stores are closing already.
Don’t worry. See you later, then?
Ok. See you!

Monday, 18 February 2008

Meaning Exchange in Academic Discourse

Man has achieved certain level of understanding of the world that surrounds him. However, this understanding is, and will always be conditioned by the preexisting notions and schemata that the community shares; what this means is that the never-ending pursuit of pure truths, which science has undertaken as its central goal, will only provide knowledge that conforms to the already internalized collective comprehension of things that society seems to have (Richards M.C., 1959). For instance, mathematics and logics have always been dubbed as merely ‘exact’ fields of study, therefore, the view these disciplines show of the universe is assumed to be ultimately realistic and hardly impossible not to rely on. Nonetheless, a truly obvious shortcoming can be found in such statement: the standards by means of which mathematics and logics, along with those of scientific study in general, make ‘exact’ measurements of reality are no more than simple abstractions thought by some human mind; no truth derived of ‘exact’ scientific methodology is part of a divine providence that enlightened theoreticians to extract laws and generalizations out of the observable facts of nature. What this discussion reveals is that no knowledge has been attained without the intervention of the highly subjective human cognition, and that all understanding of facts is inextricably tied to beliefs, reflection and assumptions that can usually be backed up by natural data (Sapir E., 1949).
The understanding of the phenomenon of language does not escape this reality. The most explored and the least understood of all fields that science and philosophy have attempted to comprehend is that which seeks to throw a model of how the human body operates, including the most complex system discovered so far: our mind. Language, as being primarily produced at a cognitive level, is part of that complexity that is yet to be understood, hence, no effort is redundant in the search for a greater insight of the workings of language which, in turn, is the understanding of the very human cognition and its ways, which mankind is yet to unveil.
In showing and analyzing the data got from nature, the classical schooling institution, that is, the university, has made use of linguistic substance that seems to follow certain identifiable patterns, being one of these patterns the all-pervading argumentative rhetorics, which have conventionally be assumed to be the most effective way to state ‘truths’ that are so well backed up, that everyone has no other option but accepting such truths as the only ones to be believed (De Beaufrande, R., 1991). When students in all academic contexts are appealed to provide their view of facts, or explain their perception and understanding of inquiries of any sort, they are basically asked to throw arguments that support certain subjective position, arguments without which, no subjective position would be accepted by the collective. It is interesting to compare the generally presupposed need to argument, that is, to support any statement, with the discussion previously carried out, since it can be quickly realized that the supposition implying that all statements and personal opinions must be supported by the discourse of those who are generally recognized as being authentic sources of expertise in part is, without any risk of being disloyal to the principles of the academy, basically a misleading notion, if one is to believe the hypothesis of all theories as the primary result of subjective reflection, and not rigorous scientific methodology. All in all, argumentation does constitute part of the core of academic rhetorics, helping students and authors to build a bridge between social beliefs, myths, the empirical and the reason.
Argumentation is, without any doubt, present in all sorts of discourse. However, the type of argumentative rhetorics used in the academy has features of its own: precision, lack of ambiguity, reduced instances of redundancy –or none at all–, the selection of lexical items that might lead towards a greater comprehension of the issue in study, which includes clarifying jargon belonging to specific fields of study, and the simplification of syntactic structures, which most commonly show integrative embeddings, a feature that is not common in any other context (Cha, J. 1985). Integrative embeddings are a very noticeable feature in all academic registers: professors in lectures feel the need to embed phrases, and as a result, their speech becomes efficient, direct and inclusive. Authors of scientific literature also use embeddings in an even more numerous amount of instances, basically because of the restrictions of associated publications, which demand clear, precise and short texts (Larsen & Crey, 2001).
Then, if rhetorics is to be considered as a meaningful prompt to characterize academic discourse, the basic expository patterns, used in lectures and writings in a very wide basis, have to be mentioned. The indicative, declarative mood is the most usual choice of language users in academic contexts (Miller, D., 2000). Teachers, as well as students, make permanent use of declarations to state facts that are probably going to be supported right after being presented. The classroom has traditionally being considered as a place where pupils gather to be instructed by some highly literate member of society, mostly licensed teachers (Sapir E., 1949). The basic means by which such ‘instruction’ is carried out is the universally recognized function of the explanation, which poses certain requirements to the teacher or anyone in charge of leading a class of any sort: the explanation of facts forces language users to declare on a variety of phenomena, as well as it, most of the times, leads the one who explains to exemplify and paraphrase the ‘truths’ that have been previously stated. This, of course, also applies for the pupils, who in an increasing fashion are assuming an active role as participants in the classroom, creating meaningful discussion and promoting a really constructive exchange of meanings. In interacting, all members of the academic setting, students, teachers, erudite, scientists, among others, not only do, but have to make use of the patterns and functions that have been mentioned, adapting and conforming to the canon of the academia, so as to contribute to the construction of knowledge in the collectively accepted fashion.
Returning to the point regarding classes being mostly of an expository nature, it has to be said that in presenting and dealing with information, it has been found that the use of the indicative, imperative mood is hardly ever used (Miller, D., 2000). This turns out to be a fairly logical consequence of the fact that the purpose of academic exchanges is that of reflect upon data and work on constructs of knowledge, and the presentation of the information derived from analysis, research and discussion is basically made as if such information were some piece of potential truth, and not the ultimate word in the field. This is an interesting observation, since one might conclude that there can be found certain degree of humbleness in such academic attitude towards the presentation of information; however, if one goes further on the very nature of the reason why the imperative mood is not used by those who hold theses of any kind, one realizes that such forms are part of complex strategies aimed at manipulating and convincing the audience who listens to or read any explanation of facts, mostly students or colleagues in the field, ready to turn down hypotheses that sound binding and imposing (Coulmas, F., 1992).
Another feature of academic discourse is its inventory of ‘field-specific’ lexicon (De Beaufrande, R., 1991). It seems as if each scientific discipline makes use of recognizable, technical terms, which constitute the basis of everyday exchange in scholarly contexts. Such terms are meant to simplify the handling of the concepts that students and professors deal with. For instance, lexical items in the fashion of meaningful learning, competence, systematic forgetting, cognitive pruning, schema, among many others, belong to the realm of pedagogy. If texts dealing with the scientific study of the processes of learning and teaching are analyzed, words such as the ones that have just been mentioned will appear in a relatively constant basis, since the understanding of the facts that such field studies has been labeled under specific headings and titles that all the members of the pedagogic community seem to share and have accepted as convention. The emergence of arbitrarily selected lexical items in scientific works, or in lectures, would result in misunderstanding and will derive in the rejection of the ideas that are intended to be shown, since the community does not comprehend the reason of such choices, unless there is a thesis supporting the introduction of such terms. Whatever the field of study, the academic jargon of each discipline seems to be the most ‘unchangeable’ feature of its discourse; this does not mean that the introduction of newly applied terms does not take place, but that such introduction does not take place in a revolutionary fashion.
The fact that fields of academic study use specific lexical items to refer to the concepts they handle presupposes another key issue in the nature of academic discourse: anyone intending to become a member of the academic community must gain a level of proficiency that allows him/her to interact and communicate meanings effectively to other members of the community (Larsen & Crey, 2001). This seems to be an underlying imposition generally accepted by students and teachers, and all academics in general: along with the specific scientific methodologies applied in each field of study, there is the specific semantic field and lexical inventory that must be part of the ‘academic competence’ of a member of the field; the individual that seeks to introduce ideas in other unconventional ways is taking the inevitable risk of being dubbed as ‘unscientific’ and ‘not very serious and rigorous’, and even currently, when there are many attempts to include subjective traits in academic works, the truth remains to be that no widely accepted or, at least, respected sample of academic discourse, has pervasive signs of the author’s personality, opinions and beliefs, without the necessary inclusion of heavy supporting and the demonstration through the use of data and the experimentation.
The topic of cohesion seems to be of great importance in the creation of academic varieties of text (Cha, J., 1985). Textual integration and consistency is a presupposed feature of the language used in scholarly settings, since scientific dealing of information has to be efficient, that is to say, quick and clear. This efficiency can be related, at some level, with Grice’s ‘Cooperative Principle’, whose maxims determine the degree of success of discursive interaction (Grice, H.P., 1975 in Coulmas, F., 1992). Following Grice’s model, it can be said that the categories that force academic texts to be cohesive are those of manner and quantity; scholarly language must be clear and brief, leading the language user who produces the texts to group disperse adjectives and compounded nouns under complex noun phrases, embed phrases in a more frequent basis, build simplifying lexical chains, operate heavily on thematization, elide themes and/or rhemes and pronominalize, among many other resources. What all this leads us to conclude is that academic discourse is highly explicit and direct, unlike other registers, including almost all varieties of informal styles, which mostly rely on pragmatic meaning, that is, meaning given by the context of situation and culture in which text is produced; academic discourse cannot be exclusively based on pragmatics, what is more, it can be said that a sine qua non feature of such discourse is that the information that is presented and dealt with does not have any underlying interpretation, and that the lexicon, along with the syntactic patterns, and rhetorics are self-explanatory, without leaving any room to second interpretations.
Academic discourse has often been said to be impersonal. What this means is that the subjective perceptions of the authors are not to be included in the objective observation and analysis of natural data, but that academics are rather expected to abstract themselves from their reality, dissect the outer reality they are studying, avoiding, as much as possible, evaluation (appraisal) towards the ideational component of their discourse, as well as the interference of affect (Coulmas, F., 1997). An obvious feature of such detachment between the personal self of the scholar and the form of the realities he/she presents is the insidious passive voice. The deletion of an underlying noun phrase, that which indicates the agent of a process, has several purposes, being the basic ones, the need to discuss realities that are supposed not to be intervened by the language user, and manipulate the receiver of the message to believe that the information presented is part of a generally accepted truth.
Being as it may, the nature of academic discourse is yet to be fully understood, let alone completely described under some rigid taxonomy. The changing realities of the academic work and the lives of the scholars, who make up the academia with their research and resulting contributions presented through linguistic means, are also exerting much influence over the type of exchanges that take place in classrooms, lectures, and between the writer and the readers of a work. Now more than ever, there seems to be a call to include the subjective perceptions of individuals in the realm of scientific research. Human experience is the center of all scientific study, therefore, the voice of individuals might become increasingly relevant in the near future. Meanwhile, and despite taking into consideration a variety of discursive markers, textual grammar seems to account sufficiently for the delineation of a model that seeks to enhance the comprehension of discourse produced in the academia. However, it has to be borne in mind that an approach that disregards the broad philosophical groundings of scholarly discourse is evidently doomed to fail, since the reality behind all human texts is the fact that linguistic exchanges are constituted by far more elements than the ones devised by formal grammar.


Cha, J. (1985). Linguistic Cohesion in Texts: Theory and Description. Seoul: Daehan Textbook Printing Co., LTD.
Coulmas, F. (1992). Language and Economy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers & Co.

Coulmas, F. (1997). Lexis and grammar. Oxford: Brettford and Troy McBride.

De Beaufrande, R. (1991). Linguistic Theory, The Discourse of Fundamental Works. Essex: Longman Group Limited.
Larsen & Crey (2001). So they say. Stockholm: Clarksen & Co.
Miller, D. (2000). Language as purposeful: functional varieties of texts. [On-line book]. Centro di Studi Linguistico-Cultirali (CeSlic): University of Bologna. Available in: [Consulted: Obtober 25, 2007].
Richards M.C. (1959). A handbook in anthropology: the study of man. Ottawa: Bills and Staunton.
Sapir E. (1949). Culture, Language and Personality. England: University of California Press LTD.

Language and Gender: Philosophical and Anthropological Considerations towards an Understanding of a Sociolinguistic Issue

“God created a man. Then He decided that this man should not be alone, so he made another being, similar to him, to provide him with company and moments of spare; that being we know as woman” Richards, M.C. (1959) p. 718

It is really interesting to notice how society has, from the very advent of time, promoted relationships of inequality among its diverse members. Money, political power, race and gender – our main concern here – have been the “factors of division” par excellence, as Richards M.C. (1959) calls them in his historical paper Man. Richards hypothesizes around the idea that mankind has organized itself into multiple layers of dominance and deference, and that gender constitutes, evidently, one of those layers. The most salient of his examples is the one concerning the nature of the Divine Person, God, which is, from time immemorial, believed to be a man; belief fed by the Holy Scriptures themselves. Another instance of gender exerting influence over the social establishment is also got out from the Bible: Jesus said that the head of family is the man, and that his woman must be a subject of his decisions (just like man is subjected to the providence of the Christ). What we see in this interpretation of the Bible is that men are considered as some sort of superior being, since women must be subjected to their power. Besides the fact that God is traditionally believed to be a he, Jesus Christ was, indeed, a man, the twelve apostles were men, and that the protagonists of most of Jesus’ parables were men (and sometimes women who committed some sin against the Lord); there is the fact that almost all faiths of mankind support the idea of a social organization based upon the superiority of men.
In an attempt to encounter the source of the traditional division of behavioral patterns within and between genders, the power of religion must not be overlooked. Nonetheless, there are other factors, mainly of a secular nature, that have helped in designing the social network of intricacies in which human beings learn to behave, and grow to be men and women, respectively, who treat each other in stereotypically expected ways. No matter how diverse these factors may be; the definite means through which mankind has always interacted and communicated the most complex concepts is language. It would be hardly the case that any human relation of effective transmission of meanings could have been built up without the emergence of language. Language is what truly defines the influence that our bounded egos exercise over the others. Language is the real tangible instance of human cognition at work, that is why, through analyzing samples of authentic speech, we can, not that easily, study the ways of the human mind, how some see the others, and why we treat ourselves in the specific fashion we do.
There are obvious physiological differences between men and women. However, as Sapir E. (1949) points out, it is social interaction what definitely creates in each individual the sense of self, behavioral patterns and most evidently, the concepts and conduct lines attributed to each gender. Children, whose perception of the world is deeply greater than that of adults, are authentic cognitive sponges of the events that take place around them: they listen more than carefully to the complicated conversations of their parents or anyone who happens to be near them, they scrutinize the reasons why people behave in such ways and compare such ways of behaving with the context they perceive, just as they add such experience to their schemata and create cognitive networks and concepts of the world through the highly specialized systematic forgetting and pruning that allows for the formation of the conceptions that everyone has about the world, the others and themselves. What daddy and mommy say is constantly recorded by the children, just as the ways in which the father acts upon the mother, and vice versa. The observation of these authentic samples will lead the children to make assumptions about the world and the relationships sustained by people; basically, the only means that children make use of on their way to learn about the world, and the definition of their selves, including their gender attitudes and concepts of everything, is language. Human beings, from a very early stage in their cognitive development, learn –subconsciously – that discourse is what will allow them to interact and exert any sort of influence over others.
Text, however, offers a wide range of features that might allow for the study of the differences between the linguistic behavior of men and women; what people do with language, the structures they employ, as well as their lexical choices together with the contexts in which certain constructions are uttered, all serve as indicators of the cognitive functioning and the entire array of ideologies and conceptions of the world a person may have. Thus, it would also be plausible to study such social phenomenon as the issue of the genders through the scope that the grammar of language provides, making it a possibility for the anthropology of inter-gender relationships to gain in knowledge from what the study of discourse has to offer. Cha, J. (1985).
There are basic distinctions between the discourse of men and women. Formal grammar offers some of the most evident traits of what may be considered as the typical markers of the speech of both genders. For example, Poynton, C. (1989) notes that the choices at the level of mood vary from women to men: men are regarded as the active entities of society, the ones who perform all kinds of activity, the ones in power, that is why they are said to utter (and write) much more imperative constructions than their female counterparts, who even in the case of stating commands, would appeal to politeness, at the lexical level. However, Lyons, J. (1971) indicates that modality also adds to the fact that men utter constructions that are far more deontic than those uttered by women, whose lexical choices tend to show a greater presence of modals that indicate possibility rather than obligation. Adding to the probability and obligation choices, there are constructions that are typically regarded as the common possession of the speech of women: super-polite forms, utterances in which any redundancy of hedges does not seem to be enough. Larsen & Crey (2001) do consider that there are men who happen to utter super-polite forms, but these are cases in which they talk to women in power positions, or the case of homosexual men, whose discourse in certain contexts must be individually studied from that of straight men and women.
Men do; women receive and react. This statement leads us to the fact that men’s discourse has been found to contain a bigger amount of material processes, rather than the mental processes abundantly encountered in female data, in the transitivity system of language. Modern anthropology suggests that women analyze and plot while men are busy doing something, performing some action. Another instance might be that reported by Haines, M. (1992), in which the data collected from diverse conversations held by men in a corporative cafeteria indicated that women tended to be the affected participants of the utterances of the men. Haas (1979) in Poynton, C. (1989) indicates points to the fact that women are more usually interrupted than by men; this is mainly due to the never–ending impulse of men to control the core of any interaction. De Beaufrande, R. (1991) notices that the conversational interaction among women in far more cooperative than that of men; while men tend to be highly competitive when talking to other men.
Men and women are, in principle, the same: human beings. However, the physiological and social differences between the genders account for the evident and particular linguistic behavior of each, allowing for the easy identification of patterns attributable to the genders. As we have seen, the grammar of the language provides much formal evidence that support the fact that the linguistic behavior of men and women varies through an entire range of language options at different levels. It is, nevertheless, of great importance to remember that there are other factors in the realm of language put to serve social functions that exercises, up to certain degree, influence over the types of relationships that the members of a group establish and maintain, among which, power relations are within these primary factors that add to the complexity of the human relationships and their change in time.

Cha, J. (1985). Linguistic Cohesion in Texts: Theory and Description. Seoul: Daehan Textbook Printing Co., LTD.
De Beaufrande, R. (1991). Linguistic Theory, The Discourse of Fundamental Works. Essex: Longman Group Limited.
Haines, M. (1992). A diversion into functional linguistics in the age of generative linguistics. Atlanta: Larkhill House, Inc.
Larsen & Crey (2001). So they say. Stockholm: Clarksen & Co.
Lyons, J. (1971). Introduction to theoretical linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Poynton, C. (1989). Language and gender: making the difference. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Richards M.C. (1959). A handbook in anthropology: the study of man. Ottawa: Bills and Staunton. Sapir E. (1949). Culture, Language and Personality. England: University of California Press LTD.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

About the Nature of Language and the Types of Discourse

Notes on the phenomenon of Language

Language is, just as any other natural phenomena, of utter complexity. It is precisely such complexity what has caught the imagination of philosophers and scientists throughout the entire history of mankind; a history that, by the way, could not have been made known to later civilizations –such ours– if it had not been for the linguistic records kept from time immemorial. Since a wide variety of thinkers have devoted their ideas to research and/or philosophical consideration of language, it is understandable why there are currently so many definitions and attempts of explanations to characterize the true nature of the basic means of communication and interaction of human beings.
Some theoreticians have argued that language is a cognitive phenomenon of a superior kind; highlighting the fact that only humans are capable of interacting in the specific terms they do, that is, through intricate semiotic representations of reality. If we are to follow this perspective, the semiotic potential of language would allow people to picture their perception of the world by means of verbalizing the abstractions produced by the rational, multi-dimensioned synaptic connections that take place in their minds.
There is no doubt regarding the cognitive and abstract nature of language. The findings and theoretical theses that led to such conclusion have also moved some other thinkers to assume that all verbalized language is primitively arranged at an abstract level of meaning, an underlying structure that subsume the real images a language user has of his/her experiences. It is within the generative realm through which the scientific study of language was conducted during several decades of the last century –at least in the American tradition of linguistics– that authors such as Chomsky, and his recurrent colleague Halle, hypothesized on the idea that basically, all human beings have very similar perceptions of actual, individual objects in material, concrete reality; however, they argued that it is the semiotic representations of these objects what changed from individual to individual, and from one social context to another[1] (De Beaugrande, R. 1991).
Then, we are faced with another characteristic of language; one that has not come to the scientific discussion in an uncontroversial fashion: language is a semiotic means of representing reality. What this means is that language allows humans to convey meanings through the use of signs, which is obviously an attribute not shared with any other known species. There are of course living entities that utilize means of communication, but such means seem to be ineffective to convey abstract, highly structuralized messages, e.g. other mammals in nature, such the oceanic blue whale, apparently transmits definite messages to other whales at certain distances to indicate physical position or the imminent presence of danger using high-pitched, sostenuto notes that could ideally be considered as signs, but again, this notes are very unlikely to be cognitively arranged so as to produce specific and creative meanings. All this evidence leads us to the fact that it is the highly evolved cognition of human beings that allows for the production of language.
So far, a number of features of language have been outlined. However, these features have only considered inner aspects of language construction, and we have paid little attention to the reason of language, the functions language is put to serve by people. It seems obvious that due to the undeniable social role of language, the contexts in which it is used, as well as the purposes that it fulfills, should be of key importance in trying to explain the nature of language serving social interaction. Nevertheless, it was just up to the last quarter of the XX century that the major contributions to the analysis of the social functions of language emerged (Coulthard, M. 1987). Theoreticians started to understand that people have not only a command of the grammatical rules that govern language, but that they also master the rules of appropriacy of language constructions given a specific context, and what is more, language users have the necessary cognitive and physiological machinery implied in communicating. It is important to mention here the imminent connection between what has just been said and Hymes’ Communicative Competence, which complements the Chomskyan concept of linguistic competence.
Now, entering Hallidayan territory, it is of the utmost relevance to recall that language is, basically, behaviour. For example, let us analyze the context of a grammar class in which a student is repetitively insulting the rest of his classmates. The teacher can do several things to face the situation: she can spank the student; she can also hit him until he goes unconscious or the teacher can also behave linguistically. If the teacher chooses to behave linguistically, she can say many things depending on what she wants to mean: the teacher can scold the student; she can persuade him, threaten him, warn him, compel him to do something and even make fun of him. This range of options available to the language user is precisely what has been labeled as Linguistic Behavior Potential. Then, when the teacher chooses to threaten the student: “If you don’t keep quiet, you will have to go out of the room”, and actually utters the previous construction, the teacher is acting linguistically; this definite realization of language is what is commonly known as Actual Linguistic Behavior (León, E. 2004).
In all the language production process, there is an underlying notion that is of much importance: language as semiotic potential. The semiotic potential makes allusion to the combination of the linguistic options available to the language user and his/her ability to select from within such options. Human beings in society can mean whatever they want to mean, choosing from the options of the language at different systems and levels, according to the situation, that is, the context in which language is being used. Language originates as a social, meaningful and really flexible tool and brings with it the structures necessary to make it fulfill a merely social function.

Society and its production of texts

We are now aware of a key aspect of language: its social role. Language derives from society, as well as society is made up and sustained by linguistic bonds build up through the permanent exchange of meanings. Without such meaning exchange, the construction of social links –and their persistence in time – would be tremendously hard (not to say totally impossible). Let us remember a very inspiring definition given by Halliday and Hasan (1989) that in referring to language and its use in determined contexts, explained that culture is, indeed, a macro-system of interrelated meanings or networks of relationships, or a set of interrelated semiotic systems. This concept of culture is extremely important, since texts are the direct result of the socio-cultural interaction and meaning exchange, bearing in mind that the socio-cultural interaction integrates elements of beliefs and value systems, world views, ideologies and cultural paradigms (Miller, D. 2000).
Up to this point, a quite comprehensive characterization of language has been provided. We now know that language is a symbolic system made up of a diversity of systems that interact at different levels of cognition and substance to produce signs that allow people to represent ideas and interact in society. And if we are to consider the highly complex nature of language, its multiple dimensions and levels, including, of course, the great variety of options available to all language users to actually behave linguistically, we could even affirm that language is a system in which the range of paradigmatic options is, technically, never-ending. Thus making the number of possible resulting texts, that is, discourses, limitless.

Spoken and Written Discourse

Additionally, human societies use language in two basic forms: a spoken one and a written one. Modern linguistics assumes, as a matter of principles, that the spoken form of language, i.e. meaning conveying through speech, is the basic and most primary means used by human beings to communicate and interact (Lyons, J. 1981). This affirmation is true only up to a certain extent; for instance, children first learn to convey their meanings through oral emissions, it is hardly the case that a child learns, unaided, how to write at such early age – before learning how to speak. There is also the evidence provided by Bloomfield, among other structural linguists, which leads us to think that all societies produce spoken discourses, but not all societies have developed a written linguistic code. However, it is also the case that in the contemporaneous society, with the emergence of advanced technological tools designed to ease interaction among humans, the so-called ‘primacy of the spoken form of language’ is being discussed.
It has to be noticed that, because of the emergence of innovative procedures to analyze conversation, there has been certain tendency –fed by Conversation Analysts– to argue that all forms of communication depend on the more ‘primary’ spoken discourse. Teun van Dijk, the pioneering developer of the modern ideas in Discourse Analysis (DA) poses a definite example to refute such affirmation: he explains that Conversation Analysis (CA) would be tremendously inefficient to understand the structures of the written messages, such as newspapers. Likewise, if we turn to written interaction, as in the MSN Live Chat, CA becomes useless, even though such kind of interaction is, in a way, spontaneous, turn-taking, mostly unplanned and, most of the time, with an element of informality (Van Dijk, T., personal communication, e-mail, October 16, 2007).
Written discourse plays a role of inevitable importance in literate societies. Newspapers, magazines, journals, books, road signs, instructions for a wide variety of products, the functioning of public services and their bills, personal agendas, movie subtitles, the Holy Scriptures, research, every single aspect of the human experience seems to have been recorded and expressed through the written form of language, and it is obvious that the mentioned samples of written texts are crucial elements of the daily routines of almost everybody nowadays. What is more, the increasing rate in which people are starting to interact via electronic mail and SMS is revolutionizing the perceptions we might have had of the written discourse.
The modern media and the rapidly evolving ‘high-tech’ devices are assuring the construction of a present and a future society in which the transmission of meanings is, indeed, multi-channeled, that is, meanings tend to be constructed – at an increasing rate from the current point in history – through a frenzied combination of written and spoken discourse; or spoken discourse with traces of written markers and vice versa. For example, SMSs show certain elements tied to the ‘informality variable’ of spoken discourse, keeping and intensifying the typical cohesion of written discourse. Another instance, this time using the sample of a politician’s speech, might be found in his/her discourse: the logics used to structure highly convincing arguments seem to draw closer to the patterns of argumentation used in say, exposes and argumentative writings.
Before attempting to go any farther, there is a concept that has not been clearly defined yet: that of discourse. Discourse is, at its most basic level, made up of both language form and the functions such form attempts to execute. In other words, the concept of discourse makes reference to any sample of language in use, language that is functional, “language that is doing some job in some context” (Halliday and Hasan 1989) p. 10. This definition of discourse presupposes that the basic purpose of language is actually doing things through and because of it; being the most pervasive ‘thing’ or activity to carry out through language the interaction and communication of meanings between language users. However, it has to be born in mind that humans do everything through and with language.[2]
Written and spoken discourses do have some traditionally perceived ‘differences’. Chafe (1982) in Renkema (1999) explains that there are two primary factors that differentiate written discourse and oral interaction: one of the factors is related to the time invested in producing each type of discourse; spoken discourse –when interactional, mostly– tends to be spontaneous, with a very low degree of previous planning. Even the time that the speaker takes to utter his/her message is usually shorter than that taken by a writer who normally sits down and thinks about the ways in which his/her message can be better understood, achieve a higher level of cohesion – for economical and practical reasons – and how to convey complex meanings in a much more organized, simple, or, at least, logical way. Unless some sample of written discourse attempts to ‘imitate’ spoken utterances, it does not normally include the basically oral hesitations, false beginnings and endings, voice pitch variation, among other indicators derived from lack of preparation, pragmatic purposes and physiological causes.
The other factor that has traditionally helped to establish a distinction between spoken and written discourse is the fact that the writer (author) does not normally have contact with the reader, which would be in contrast with the immediate response often associated with conversation. However, this absence of immediate response and turn-taking –being the latter a basic attribute of conversation– does not mean that written discourse leaves interaction aside. The reader interacts with the written text in ways directly and indirectly determined by the context of culture and the context of situation in which the discourse is being processed. The writer interacts with the reader by expressing his/her meanings using specific patterns, arranging the available language substance and trying to structure thoughts in a way that the discourse causes certain reaction or impact on the reader. Thus, the interaction in written discourse, though less spontaneous and immediate than in spoken exchanges, can be said to be active even when assuming a traditional perspective. Furthermore, if we take into account the recent trends in electronic communication, it will be much more evident that a great amount of spontaneous, turn-taking, unplanned interaction is indeed taking place through written discourse.
Lyons, J. (1981) indicates that the first and essential difference between written and spoken discourse is the medium in which language signals are realized, referring to a fundamental property of language: medium transferability. Historically, the medium through which linguistic signals are transmitted has shaped the form of both types of discourse. The phonic substance and its most elusive medium: sound waves in the air, have allowed human beings to interact as well as create bonds other than linguistic, e.g. affective and emotional. Spontaneous conversation requires physical proximity, which, of course, demands from the interlocutors some other elements implied in keeping social relations and even physiological functioning. For example, in conversation, the interlocutors take into account lots of contextual variables, such as the power position of the other, his/her own position of control, the context of situation, the context of culture, the patterns of intonation of the other, hesitations, the unusually collocated stresses and lexical units, gestures, face expression, and even, in some cases, the breathing rhythm of the interlocutor.
These contextual variables, mostly of an extra-linguistic[3] nature, are not present in the written discourse, with the exception of the perennially defining context, power and socio-political position, due to the character of the medium through which written interaction takes place. Writers cannot use the sophisticated gesticulation machinery that interlocutors find inevitable in conversation; this is the main reason why the written discourse tends to be much more cohesive and self explanatory than speech. It seems that the only extra-linguistic factor that affects the comprehension of written discourse is the reader’s world knowledge, while in conversation, these extra-linguistic features carry almost as much of the meaning load as does the language used itself. For instance, there are situations –in oral interaction– in which the intonation pattern defines the function of the grammatical form used; in some other cases, it is gesticulation what complements a very brief, nevertheless meaningful, discourse.
Both types of discourse, written and spoken, have a very similar function in society, i.e. to communicate cognition in ways that no other species does. The differences between written and spoken discourse, however, do not justify a division in the study of their particular phenomena; this does not mean that the same methodology has to be applied when trying to find out about the workings of the written or the spoken forms of language, but that the concept of discourse is comprehensive enough as to include within its interdisciplinary approach the study of all language used to fulfill certain functions. Both written and spoken discourse show evidence of social functionality. The fact that people in the present day live in a sort of ‘hyper-linked’ world, in which the exchange of texts is increasingly assuming a new and more relevant place in the development of the human experience, makes us conclude that no matter the medium through which meanings are conveyed, the human mind is very likely to find ways to explore and use the resources available to express its intricate notions of itself and of the rest of the world to the outer reality.


Coulthard, M. (1987). Introduction to Discourse Analysis. Essex: Longman Group Limited.

De Beaufrande, R. (1991). Linguistic Theory, The Discourse of Fundamental Works. Essex: Longman Group Limited.

Halliday, M.A.K. and Hasan R. (1989). Language, context and text. Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

León, E. (2004). An Introduction to Systemic-Functional Grammar: A Guide for EFL Students. Caracas: Ediciones del Vicerrectorado de Investigación y Postgrado UPEL.

Lyons, J. (1981). Language and Linguistics. An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, D. (2000). Language as purposeful: functional varieties of texts. [On-line book]. Centro di Studi Linguistico-Cultirali (CeSlic): University of Bologna. Available in: [Consulted: Obtober 25, 2007].

Renkema, J. (1999). Introducción a los studios sobre el discurso. Barcelona: Editorial Gedisa S.A.
[1] It is necessary to point out that Chomsky hardly ever spoke of language as a contextual phenomenon, but rather, as the performance of an individual in a certain language community.
[2] Let us consider the case of the hearing impaired people, and even that of the blind, deaf and mute people who find themselves sensitively enclosed by their own organism. In such instances, the human mind is capable of developing novel and creative ways to convey both concrete and abstract meanings through, say, kinesthetic perception (touch). Or we can even consider the case of the deaf and mute child who naturally learns how to communicate meanings through miming signs. These forms of language, though not written nor spoken, are symbolic means that allow for interaction and communication.
[3] Authors such as Coulthard (1987) use the term ‘supra-linguistic’ instead; but it is the opinion of the author of the present essay that there is nothing “above language”. Language is a system that conditions the thoughts of human beings, as well as it defines their actions. Language is the most evolved feature of humans, the means through which our abstractions bloom to the world outside the boundaries of our cognition. If a license here is permitted, perhaps only God is above language.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Glottal replacement in British varieties of English

During the last few months I’ve been watching British soap operas and films in a very frequent basis. It was a real issue for me to get to understand even the apparently simplest exchanges held between the characters on the shows and films I watched. However, in time, I came to realise that there were quite a few prosodic and phonetic features of the English dialects used in such shows that were definitely making my understanding of the dialogs a true ordeal. The first feature - though not prosodic, but grammatical – I noticed was the numerous occurrence of question tags. Brits really use question tags, all the time and in almost every context! My problem trying to get what the speakers said every time they uttered a question tag derived from the extreme[1] weakening of the grammatical form by the speakers; let us recall our phonetics and phonology class: tags can be used to confirm information given by an interlocutor, as a pragmatic indicator (to let the interlocutor know that one is expecting certain answer), or to ask a real question, after providing some context of the situation (You’re not going to the gig, are you?[2] , being the rising intonation pattern an indicator of the nature of the question). However, question tags, in my very personal opinion, seem to serve a more social function in the speech of most speakers of all varieties of BrE due to the fact that such structure is used very regularly and can be said to be, if we are to believe in my observations, a dialect indicator of most BrE varieties[3].
The second feature I noticed – a phonetic one this time – was the high occurrence of the allophonic variant [ʔ] in most varieties of BrE. Let’s remember that [ʔ] is the voiceless, glottal, stop realisation of both alveolar stops of English, i.e. /t/ and /d/, being the position “__syllabic /n/” the most common environment for this allophone, e.g. button, cotton, mountain, sudden, broaden, etc. However, as I said before, I’ve been watching lots of British films and soaps, and through careful observation I realised that the speakers’ production of [ʔ] is not restricted to the environment mentioned above; what is more, it happens to be more frequent than any other “dialect indicator” when exchanges in an informal register take place. The interesting thing to notice here is that the production of the glottal stop in BrE has been seen as a “traditionally stigmatized” indicator of dialect, often attributed to economically disadvantaged, working-class speakers, including speakers from the East End of London, speakers of the Cockney variety of London working-class English, and the so-called ‘Estuary English’ (Kortland, F. 1985). This geographical restriction I found in texts immediately got me thinking! Authors like Kortland, F. (1985), Kortland, F. (1998), Ladefoged, P. (1975) and Gimson, A.C. (1970) point out that the phenomenon of glottal replacement (the complete substitution of [ʔ] for [t], basically) occurs at its highest rates in South-East English, particularly in South-East London, some areas in Scotland and in most varieties of Australian English, and the authors also claim that this phenomenon hardly ever occurs in RP.
In the light of everything I have just said, it is my duty to tell you all about my findings, well, my observation… Ok, ok! My non-stop watching of films and soap operas… First of all, I’ve heard speakers –or in this case, actors – from a great diversity of geographical backgrounds, whose pronunciation differs enormously, even coming from the same country (England). I have heard speakers from Belfast (Northern Ireland), Dundee (Scotland), Sheffield (England), Cardiff (Wales), and South-East London (England), and I can tell you, in certain situations and contexts, ALL speakers happened to produce the glottal stop instead of the voiceless, alveolar, stop [t] –which is the specific replacement case that concerns me here, paying little attention to the replacement of [d] –, some of the speakers used varieties of English located close to RP in nature , and even one of the speakers, Aleena Rugyasen, a news presenter from the BBC World Service was heard to have said: “[Iʔ Iz ə hɑrd sItʃueIʃən]”! All this keeping her “posh”, RP, “Queen” English…
The most striking, nevertheless beautiful, ‘glottal containing’ utterance I’ve heard so far is: [ə bɒʔɫ ɒv wɒʔə] “A bottle of water”! I heard it from a Scottish woman in an informal context. However, texts do not normally mention the Scottish varieties of English as having the glottal stop in their sound inventory for such specific environments.
My claim is that of Altendorf, U. (2001): “British English is going Cockney”, which is the title of his study in which youngsters from three elementary schools with different geographic and economic backgrounds were recorded producing a clear t-replacement in words and expressions such as: “Gatwick Airport”, “quite right”, “quite easy”, “bottle” and “water”… One of the schools was Eaton…
So, the next time you get the opportunity to watch a British film or any other kind of show, pay careful attention to the glottal replacement phenomenon! When you notice the production of this allophonic variant you’ll get to see that it is actually an element which gives much naturalness and enhances the flow of speech, and it is very important for us to notice it in order to understand any exchange in which the speakers produce the glottal stop.
By the way, I haven’t told you! The voiceless, glottal stop of English is produced by the firm and rapid contact of the vocal cords, so that any vibration ceases and the airflow is logically stopped –being subsequently released –. That’s why I sometimes say that [ʔ] is actually the absence of sound! I even joke about the shape of the phonetic symbol: it really looks like a question mark, as if someone is asking: “Where’s the sound?”… hehe

These are the environments in which the glottal stop of BrE varieties is most likely to occur:
__C: Gatwick
__#C: Quite right
__V: Quite easy
__#pause: Quiet!
__/l/: Bottle
V__V: Butter
Adapted from Kortland, F. (1985).


.-Gimson, A.C. (1970). An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English. London: Arnold.
.- Kortland, F. (1998). Glottalization in the history of English. Stockholm: Rheinhaard kleis, Ltd.
.- Kortland, F. (1985). Proto-Indo-Eyropean glottalic stops: the comparative evidence.
Stuttgart: Sheftland und Krauss.
.-Ladefoged, P. (1975). A Course in Phonetics. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

[1] I am terribly sorry to be using such an adjective: “extreme”; but my intention in writing these few lines was not to discuss the issue from a highly academic and theoretical point of view. I’m expressing my personal opinions towards the nature of phenomena which I consider to be of an inevitable beauty and importance in everyday usage in almost all varieties of BrE.
[2] The weakening of the form occurs because of the fact that the main load of information of the utterance is carried by the group uttered right before the tag, the ‘group of information’.
[3] It is also important to notice that I’m not saying anything about the uttering of ‘tags’ in other varieties of English other than the British ones, this does not mean I’m denying its occurrence in any other dialects.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

New term, folks!

Hi, everyone! I just wanted to say a few words in the occasion of our starting the regular class term at school. Last semester, we faced diverse challenges; Fase de Observación, ELT Methodology and Evaluation seemed to have taken all of our free time, and -allow me to be strictly frank here - these three important subjects got us a bit busy and tired. However, I do recognize that it would have been impossible to continue our studies without trying to deepen our understanding of core elements of ELT analysed and practiced in these subjects.
Methodology, with its multiple "demo" class sessions, helped me overcome a bit of a problem I had: I was terrified! I thought I was going to do everything the wrong way! However, since I had the opportunity to teach several of these class sessions, I got used to the idea of facing an audience of pretty different kinds of students, with diverse needs and backgrounds... And, I know that this time we were "lucky", the students we had to teach were portrayed by ourselves, but as you might have thought at some point: we are not the easiest crowd to handle.
ELT Evaluation was just great! I completely fell in love with the subject, that is, just after I finally started to understand the idea of how to create and correct the items to evaluate the different skills and components of the students' linguistic performance, then -and only then! - I got to like ELT Evaluation... And to tell you the truth, I truly found this course to be one of the most enriching ones I've ever taken... Now you listen to all of us correcting every piece of test that we find on our way, and most amusingly, destroying the evaluation design!!! That's why I do think that our generation is going to start changing things in the teaching field. We have, or at least, we are beginning to have, an awareness of the reality of the ELT classrooms in our country, and what is even more important, all of us seem to have the willingness to use the great theoretical background of pure knowledge we have acquired throughout our studies in the realm of our everyday classroom activities, making every possible effort to adapt such knowledge to the always changing nature of our students out there.
The term that is about to begin gives us a completely new opportunity to glow with knowledge. Those of us who are taking the Grammar Seminar will surely have lots of fun!!! Being the language studied up to its most complex social functions (reasons and causes), we will find in discourse analysis a new challenge which, most likely, is going to enhance the understanding we have of the magnificent phenomenon that interests us all: language.
Then, some of us are also taking British Literature. I've got great expectations. In time, I've learnt to like and truly appreciate the beauty of the literary expression - and of course, its importance in ELT -. So, you can say that I'm actually looking forward to reading non-stop this semester!
I also know that some of you made the intelligent decision to take the Linguistics Seminar during the summer; to those of you who did it, congratulations! And if you are thinking about taking such seminar in this term, I just hope you all have a great time at digging everytime deeper into the very core of language understanding... Some others decided to take the ESP seminar (though I'm not very sure if you actually call it "seminar"; but you know what I mean); to those of you who did it, I certainly hope that you can put all the knowledge you acquired into practice, using some of the useful resources provided in such subject, like the basic step to design any course: a needs analysis. I personally think that a teacher has to be permanently conducting needs analyses in his/her classroom, this to have a greater grasp of what is actually happening in the field, and the extent to which we should modify our teaching and assessing methodology, departing from the actual spine of our job: the students and their needs - being these of any kind.
Now it's time for me to say goodbye. However, I'd like to use this medium to let you know that I hope -from the very bottom of my mind and heart- that all of us can enrich our bodies of knowledge, improve our teaching skills, get to know a little bit more of the nature of language and... become closer and better classmates!!!
Viktor Manuel

The Systemic-Functional Approach to Language Description - A historical characterization of Linguistics

Human beings have always been fascinated by their natural ability to communicate and comprehend ideas. Great efforts have been devoted to understand the nature of the extremely complex phenomenon language represents. Language theoreticians have, throughout history, developed hypotheses, assumptions and thoughts that have, each at its own time and way, revolutionized the perceptions available of language.
Much has been said about language. Some theories and perceptions on language functioning have been very accurate and logical at describing linguistic phenomena; such is the case of the late 19th century European Structuralists, who conceived language as a system of signs with an obvious structure, and the early 20th century North American Structuralists led by Bloomfield, whose particularly scientific and detailed approach derived in the starting point of the objective and positive description of observable language items – though disregarding the analysis of meaning because of its alleged “abstract nature” – [1].
Some other attempts to describe language nature have been rather abstract and less rigorous[2]. For instance, Transformational Generative Linguistics and its founding father, Noam Chomsky, claimed that language was much more than just a few structures with no apparent connections. Generativists viewed language as a behavior (performance) governed by rules (competence) that are common to all the members of an “ideal community of hearers/speakers” Antonini, M. (1996) p. 63. However, it is really important to point out the contribution of this school of thought to the development of a perception that sees language as a deeply abstract and complex system, in which not everything lies on the surface of all speech acts but rather, most of what human beings communicate through language is first processed at a deep, underlying level of competence.
Still, there was more to language than just structures and rules. If all the previous theories have, without any doubt, contributed to the understanding of some linguistic principles, they had, even more deliberately, ignored the purpose of language: its functionality. Some theoreticians finally got to the conclusion that to understand, or at least, submit any kind of linguistic functioning thesis, it was absolutely necessary to start directing the attention of language analysis towards the ways language functions when used in context. Language was lastly understood not only as a set of rules to study, but as the greatest communicative tool mankind has.
One of those theoreticians who first adverted the importance of language being studied in context was Hymes, who thoroughly criticizing Chomsky’s approach towards language description, uncovered a major aspect of language nature: language users not only know how to construct grammatical sentences, they also handle the knowledge of how to express utterances that are appropriate to the context. Aitchison, J. (1979) p. 91. Thus, Hymes introduces two terms that are determinant in trying to figure out the ways of language: context and communicative competence [3].
However, another linguistic revolution within the functional view of language analysis was yet to come. When M.A.K. Halliday proposed an entire model of language called Systemic Grammar, even more facts of language were exposed. Halliday conceived language as a system of systems; each of those systems are made up of a multiplicity of options at different levels.
Besides, Systemic grammar emphasize the social aspects of language. The options available in certain systems and levels, as well as the choice language users do among them, will vary depending on the situation in which the interlocutors are involved. This range of linguistic options available at multiple levels is subsumed under the term Linguistic Behavior Potential.
First, it is necessary to be aware of the fact that language is behavior potential. For example, let us analyze the context of a grammar class in which a student is repetitively insulting the rest of his classmates. The teacher can do several things to face the situation: she can spank the student; she can also hit him until he goes unconscious or the teacher can also behave linguistically. If the teacher chooses to behave linguistically, she can say many things depending on what she wants to mean: the teacher can scold the student; she can persuade him, threaten him, warn him, compel him to do something and even make fun of him. This range of options available to the language user is precisely what has been previously labeled as Linguistic Behavior Potential. Then, when the teacher chooses to threaten the student: “If you don’t keep quiet, you will have to go out of the room”, and actually utters the previous construction, the teacher is acting linguistically; this definite realization of language is what is commonly known as Actual Linguistic Behavior.
In all the language production process, there is an underlying notion which is of utmost importance: language as meaning potential. The meaning potential makes allusion to the combination of the linguistic options available to the language user and his/her ability to select from within such options. Human beings in society can mean whatever they want to mean, choosing from the options of the language at different systems and levels, according to the situation, that is, the context in which language is being used. Language originates as a social, meaningful and really flexible tool and brings with it the structures necessary to make it fulfill a merely social function. Antonini, M. (1996) p. 73.
At this point, it is important to mention another feature of Systemic-Functional Grammar: the notion of clines. According to León (2004) p.13, clines are “scales on which all the points shade into each other”. Such concept is of great importance, since Systemic-Functional Linguistics does not analyze dichotomies like the generative ‘Grammaticality/Ungrammaticality’. The previous terms are rather conceived as two ends of a continuum. Within the functional approach, the scale of delicacy would apply, adding as much detail as possible to the analysis of other scales. For instance, in trying to be more delicate than the generativists in analyzing the dichotomy grammaticality/ungrammaticality, a more detailed scale would be generated, and it would be something as follows: grammatical, usual, less usual, unusual, more unusual. Also, the scale of rank is frequently used to organize linguistic items according to their size, using a “consists of” criterion. [4]
So far, the term levels has been continuously mentioned, since it happens to be another key feature of systemic-functional linguistics. Language functions at three basic levels: its substance, form and the situation. Being situation a totally novel attribute considered in linguistic analysis. The situation in which language is used is central to determine the options available at the levels of substance and form, obviously influencing the meaning potential of the language users. Let us examine an example: a professor is lecturing a group of students on the theories developed by Ferdinand De Saussure. When the professor asks a student: “what did De Saussure mean by saying that language is full of signs?”; the place where the lecture is being held, the students and the professor gathered and the fact that the professor is asking a definite question to a specific student, constitutes the immediate situation. Along with the background – previous life and linguistic experiences – of the student (commonly called Wider Situation), the student will arrange (form) the substance of the language (phonemes, in this case) to utter whatever he wants to mean (his idea, or thesis) at the moment. [5] However, these three primary levels of language do not function in isolation. To fulfill social functions through language, the interlevels graphology and phonology act to link the phonic and graphic substance and form (grammar and lexis). Thus, these two interlevels allow for the arrangement of the substance depending on the semantic relations of the lexicon to be used and the class and distribution of such lexical items. Another interlevel, context, acts to link form and the situation in which language is to be used. As was mentioned before, the use of forms will be determined by the social function that has to be accomplished.
Now that a few very basic features of Systemic-Functional Linguistics have been outlined, a very important question arises: how can educational technology (pedagogy) take advantage of such theory? Teachers need to bear in mind that linguistics does not provide solutions or answers to any teaching issue. However, teachers have always used certain ideas of language description to better understand the nature of the language they are teaching. In recent years, for instance, almost all of the syllabi of English as a Foreign Language courses have incorporated an extreme change in their approaches to language teaching; literature on TEFL is now focusing mostly on language functions rather than structures, with the premise that students will develop, naturally, skills to use grammar structures appropriately through the learning of specific linguistic functions.
Finally, it is important for every teacher who intends to offer high quality and always evolving teaching techniques to his/her students to adopt an eclectic position towards language description and language teaching. Even though Systemic-Functional Linguistics proposes a very realistic and advanced vision of language phenomena, teachers should remain as open-minded as possible, and use in class whatever techniques and approaches that best suit his/her purposes. Even Halliday himself affirmed that “Systemic-Functional Linguistics has no orthodox or received vision of language, but rather a revolutionary and tolerable attitude towards change and self-criticism” Halliday, M. (1985) p. 72.


.- Aitchison, J. (1979). Linguistics. Systems?. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

.- Antonini, M. (1996). Handout of Introduction to the Study of Language. Caracas: Chair of Linguistics of the Departamento de Idiomas Modernos del Instituto Pedagógico de Caracas. Unpublished project.

.- Halliday, M. A. K. (1985). An introduction to functional grammar. London: Edward Arnold.

.- Leon, E. (2004). An Introduction to Systemic-Functional Grammar: A Guide for EFL Students. Caracas: Publicaciones Arbitradas del Vicerrectorado de Investigación y Postgrado; Universidad Pedagógica Experimental Libertador.

.- Matthiessen, C. (1997). Introducing Functional Phonology. A historiography of Systems in Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

.- Mijares, C. (1999). Manual para la Realización de Proyectos de Investigación 1999. México D.F.: Ediciones de la Sección de Investigación de la Universidad Nacional Abierta de México.

Electronic Sources:
.- Wikipedia, Enciclopedia Libre.

[1] In spite of the fact that North-American Structuralists did not pay attention to meaning, the current objective and rigorous methodologies of linguistic description are, in part, the result of their very accurate account of language. Antonini, M. (1996) p. 59.
[2] The scientific character of a “theory” is mainly based on its rigurosity, logics and proved hypotheses. Comte on Mijares, C. (1999) p.210, clearly states that “mere thoughts and assumptions do not constitute scientific data”.
[3] Communicative competence can be understood as an extension of the concept proposed by Chomsky, that of Linguistic Competence. Hymes argues that Communicative competence is made up of the knowledge of an underlying grammar of the commonly accepted and understood and the sense of appropriateness. Aitchison, J. (1979) p. 102.
[4] It is important to point out that the notion of “rank”-without the label- was implicitly used in early structural analysis of the language. The relation “consists of” was within the structural tenet: “in language, small units arrange to form larger ones”. Matthiessen, C. (1997) p. 12.
[5] When producing written language, the same processes apply: immediate and wider situation along with the thesis will influence the language user to arrange the linguistic substance (graphemes).