The ‘Language' Pole

The ‘Language' Pole

Jean-Paul Narcy-Combes (Sorbonne nouvelle - Paris 3 University, France)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-707-7.ch003


In this chapter, as in the previous chapter, the authors face a ‘linguistic’ dilemma: in French there has long been an easy distinction between language (a human faculty), langue (a tongue/a code) and parole (speech/discourse) (see Saussure, 1972 edition). This distinction can be maintained in English on a conceptual level, but the choice of the words to express it does not necessarily reflect ordinary everyday ways of speaking. As a consequence it may seem to reflect a fine theoretical construction that has little relevance to basic language learning. Our assumption is that understanding the implications of this distinction is of paramount importance.
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In this largely theoretical chapter, the objective is to try and find operational answers to a number of questions:

  • What is the link between language, culture and content?

  • How can the nature of this link be reflected in our understanding of language and cognition and of plurilingualism?

  • What psycholinguistic evidence supports our views?

  • Are reading and writing processed the way listening and speaking are?

  • How is language now seen to be processed?

  • How are levels of attainment seen today?

The answers to these questions will have implications for language learning. In the first part of the chapter, the readers can try to answer these questions and to compare their answers with the position held in the book (see “Synthesis”) and can then make a list of the implications for learning (in terms of situations, content, activities and curriculum) and can compare their list with the one given in the book. A discussion among readers of the differences may prove very constructive.


‘Language’ As A Construct In A Systemic Approach

Some researchers see language as a technology (Auroux 2001, p.175) which helps us to design and conceive our interactions with others. This may go against its strong association with human identity that is now postulated.

Language is the place where actual and possible forms of social organizations and their likely social and political consequences are defined and contested. Yet it is also the place where our sense of ourselves, our subjectivity is constructed. (Norton, in Seidlhofer 2003, p. 241)

We will see in this chapter that there is no way we can avoid tackling this contradiction between the practical and the symbolic, the abstract and the concrete, the affective and the cognitive, the individual and the social.

We will not consider the debate as to whether language is an innate or a constructed faculty because as far as distance second language learning is concerned, it is no longer relevant (Gaonac’h, 2006) but we will have to see whether language processing is a specific, modular faculty or whether it is part of one general cognitive faculty.

Initially, language (le langage) may not have been constructed to facilitate thinking, which would result more from communicative needs that language was eventually able to fulfill, but today language more or less structures the way our thinking is organized even if, in our everyday use, it is still determined by our need to communicate. It could be said that our brain is genetically adapted for the production of language, but for each individual human being its development will be the product of the social interactions s/he has been involved in and it will become the locus for the construction of his/her subjectivity (LeDoux, 2003). Some go even further and postulate that language and consciousness cannot be differentiated (Bakhtin, 1977) because it is difficult to imagine consciousness without language. This may explain why many monolingual humans seem to be initially puzzled when they come across another tongue, a concept to which we will return when we deal with nativization, or assimilation, in Piaget’s words (1970).

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