Talking to students through the fog

Linguistics - An Introduction to Linguistics. First Edition
November 26, 1999

Textbooks, even well-written ones like these two, can be foggy. I do not have in mind their writing style, as measured by the "fog index" of long sentences and big words. My concern here is the kind of fog that can afflict undergraduate students when a complex subject is presented to them in a confusing way. Linguistics is particularly prone to this danger, as language is a familiar thing that normally only becomes problematic when we have a practical difficulty in using it.

Linguistics, however, starts with some analytical questions about language. Students need help to understand why these particular questions are important. No matter how convincingly a book presents the answers and the methods for reaching them, the mist will remain if the questions are not explained and justified clearly at the outset.

Stuart Poole's An Introduction to Linguistics begins by stressing the pervasiveness of language in human life and the differences between human language and animal communication. This is promising, but unfortunately he devotes a mere paragraph to this comparison, using only the dance of honeybees as an example. The discussion is too brief: not only does it presuppose some knowledge of bees, but it rushes like a greyhound through notions like "productivity" and "cultural transmission", which need more space.

The book contrasts various general definitions of "language", then outlines the different parts of linguistics (sounds, words, regional variation, etc). These will be dealt with, we finally read, in later chapters, and Poole no doubt thought that his first chapter had provided a neat introduction and outline. I am not convinced, because the questions he proposes to address have not been explained and justified. The second chapter, on lexis, for instance, deals with problems in defining the term word and the processes by which words are added to a language.

Why, though, did Poole pick these topics? On what voyage of discovery is this the first step? We are not told and students may start to lose their bearings.

In Linguistics: An Introduction , Andrew Radford et al start quite differently: their first sentence proposes that each language should be viewed as a "cognitive system". This view has been promoted vigorously by Noam Chomsky, whose influence is acknowledged a few lines down. The authors spend several pages justifying and elaborating their approach, then devote rather less space to an alternative view of language, which emphasises its social nature: the two views are said to be complementary rather than in conflict.

Chomskyan linguistics is a perfectly legitimate subject for a textbook and the authors deserve credit for making their position clear in the opening pages. Whether students will avoid swathes of foggy confusion remains to be seen. The cognitive view may be clear to specialists, but as Chomsky has repeatedly emphasised, it is not the commonsense view: indeed, it departs so radically from commonsense as to seem bizarre. Some experts agree, notably the philosopher John Searle, who once famously described the cognitive view of language as "pointless and perverse". The authors possibly underestimate the oddness of this view of language and the consequent need to justify it at some length.

Because of their emphasis on cognition, the treatment of social aspects of language is brief, and inevitably superficial. Another unfortunate result is the odd treatment of speech disorders. For most people, the main reason to study speech disorders would be to help people who suffer from them. Here, however, they are treated simply as handy evidence on the structure of the mind. This might strike students as callous, and some justification should be provided.

Each book has one attractive innovation. Poole has a substantial chapter on the languages of Western Europe, picking out some notable features of each language from sample texts. Students might respond well to this, particularly if they are studying linguistics in conjunction with a foreign language, as is often the case. The novel feature in Radford et al is the structure of the book. The usual pattern is to have chapters on language structure and then move on to wider issues. Instead, the book is organised in three sections on structure, within which issues of historical variation, psycho-linguistic processing and socio-linguistic variation are introduced after the central "cognitive" areas have been thoroughly covered. This is a bold way to organise the book and it could work well.

We thus have two very different textbooks. Poole's book is descriptive, wide ranging and mainly reflects British work; Radford et al are theoretical, narrower in range and have a strong American influence. Each book is excellent in places, innovative and full of energy and enthusiasm, but nonetheless has the potential to induce a nebulous haze in some students. Between them they probably represent most of the good things - and a few of the bad - about linguistics in the United Kingdom.

Raphael Salkie is principal lecturer in language studies, University of Brighton.

Linguistics: An Introduction. First Edition

Author - Andrew Radford, Martin Atkinson, David Britain, Harald Clahsen and Andrew Spencer
ISBN - 0 521 47261 X and 47854 5
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 438

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