Culture? You must be joking

September 26, 1997

Language: TEFL techniques, the Internet, class and jokes have parts to play in learning and development

Language has a large informal element, and linguists impoverish their understanding of development if they ignore it. So argues Guy Cook, a reader in education at the Institute of Education, University of London, who is working on a book on language development.

He said: "There are areas of language which have tended to be marginalised and seen as unimportant but have a great deal to tell us about the way languages develop."

He argues that this has been reinforced by the culture in education over the past decade which put the emphasis on teaching students elements of language which were deemed "useful" because they were related to economic activity. "It was also assumed that this was what students wanted and found more interesting," he said.

A further factor was the greater availability of material from official and business sources.

But a counter-attack has come from several fronts. He said: "Corpus work, where large amounts of material were collected and analysed by computer, has produced results that do not fit the instrumental model."

The work of researchers such as Robin Dunbar on the origins of language suggested that the informal sector had a significant role. "It had been argued that language had its origins in the need of hunters to communicate with each other. But numerous species manage to hunt without a language. Dunbar suggested that gossip, enabling and easing social contact, was a more likely origin."

Dr Cook's interest is in playful uses of the language - in particular jokes and storytelling. He said: "People manipulate the language and develop their own patterns for this."

This theory also covers both ends of one of the most important controversies in applied linguistics - whether language is innate to species or develops in a social context. "I would argue that playfulness with language is an aspect of the human species," he said.

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