In search of a holistic Perspective on Language and Language Teaching

In spite of the highly academic discourses available on the nature and characteristics of language and its manifestation as a cognitive phenomenon and a social dynamic, language seems to be an enigma to many stakeholders involved in designing and implementing a language curriculum. Language as a tool for making sense of the world is coterminous with our human experience and is used spontaneously in all the spheres of our personal, social and cultural engagement right from our childhood. Though language plays a very important role in our perception of reality and the sharpening of our cognitive ability, not only in the popular parlance, even in scholarly discourses, it is often viewed simply as a means of communication. “Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of voluntary produced symbols” Sapir (1921:8). But considering language from a purely utilitarian point of view is a travesty of the fact that language is a constituent of our human entity and an embodiment of our human experience. A child’s tryst with language begins with her birth and the language ‘acts as a subtle, yet strong force, shaping the child’s perception of the world, interests, capabilities, and even values and attitudes.”(Krishna Kumar, 1986:1).

Though the professionals involved in language education have a general idea of ‘what is language’ and how it works, an in-depth understanding of language and its role in the cognitive development of a child and its pedagogic implication in concept formation and knowledge creation are often overlooked by them. The Position Paper on Teaching of Indian Languages published by the NCERT, NewDelhi in 2006 observed that “In order to appreciate fully the role of language in education, we must begin to develop a holistic perspective on language.”(NCE, 2006:1). But, in order to develop a holistic perspective we have to examine language in a multi-dimensional space.

As language can be considered from diverse points of view, theoretical linguists, applied linguists, social psychologists, cognitive psychologists and all other people interested in language have tried to look at it from their own perspectives. Consequently, the plethora of diverse perspectives originating from conflicting theoretical orientation often pose serious problems for the people who are entrusted with the task of teaching language. Therefore, the interface between language perspectives and language pedagogy needs a systematic exploration for our own understanding and the classroom practice.

As the intertwining of the language and its context is an essential condition for language acquisition and language leaning, any language pedagogy meant for young learners has to take into consideration the learners’ urge for relating language to their context. Any attempt to teach a language without relating it to the context appealing to the learners is an attempt to negate the natural process of a child’s way of picking up a new language. Moreover, as language is a complex system and encompasses the wide spectrum of the cognitive development of a child, a single perspective cannot be adequate for an understanding of the process of language acquisition. Skinner’s argument of ‘language as behaviour’ vs Chomsky’s ‘theory of innateness’ view two extreme ends of a debate and along with this debate we have to consider the sociolinguistic realities that condition language acquisition. A lot of research findings on the correlation between language behaviors and cognition, the role of the speech community in shaping the linguistic as well as the cognitive competence of the child and the child’s innate ability to internalize the verbalization pattern of the first language without overt consciousness are based on diverse points of view.

Language acquisition is a mysterious phenomenon, indeed, and new theories are emerging on the basis of neurobiological approaches or from diverse sociological perspectives. It has been reported that certain elements of language are acquired even during the prenatal and neonatal period and the innate disposition of the newborn baby accounts for the Chomskian statement that the first language is rapid, effortless and untutored like maturation. Language acquisition in early childhood does not mean that the child does something, it only means that something happens to the child. (Chomsky, 1993). Jean Piaget refined the theory put forward by Chomsky and asserted that children learn language for personal and aesthetic reasons and through a gradual, constructive approach to society. He believed that language was a process of active exploration and discovery, a constant building of meaning. Lev Vygotsky advocated a language approach which celebrated the inherent knowledge of the learner. “The child begins to perceive the world not only through his (or her) eyes but also through his (or her) speech” (Vygotsky, 1978:32). The language paradigm emanating from the scholarship of Chomsky, Piaget and Vygotsky celebrated the child’s inherent capability and desire to generate a sophisticated, socially driven language. Now, the question is how to arrive at a holistic perspective!!!!!

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