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Introduction- The way humans communicate and share ideas and concepts in society is complex. How are ideas conceptualized -- how are they explained -- how does discourse relate- and how do humans understand messages -- what is true about language- what is not? These are just some of the issues surrounding theories of language acquisition and development. However, a full review of all current linguistic theories is out of the realm of this paper, thus we will concentrate on a single theory of language acquisition. First, though, it is useful to understand the basic themes of theoretical linguistics, a branch of the science of speech concerned with the way humans use core factors of language, and how those core precepts are developed within a particular culture. Regardless of the language grouping, human languages have three major commonalties: articulation (the production of speech sounds, sometimes including non-verbal cues); perception (the way human ears respond to speech and how the brain analyzes the messages and; acoustics (physical characteristics of sound like color, volume, amplitude, and frequency) (Ottenheimer 2006 34-47). As one might imagine, scholars and philosophers all have different ideas on the theoretical constructs of the way humans acquire, develop, and utilize language. Even ancient philosophers like Plato had thoughts on whether children were born with an innate sense of meaning already inside their brain, or whether it was social interaction that caused different skills to be forthcoming. For Plato, not knowing or understanding the various language families, much of learning was relearning -- children were born with an innate sense of the world and just needed practice "remembering" how to communicate (Tomasello 2008). After the Renaissance, and into the Age of Enlightenment, philosophers like Hobbes and Locke argued that knowledge (of which language is an essential determiner for them) emerged from the senses (Harrison 2002).
Noam Chomsky, and other linguistic scholars, believe that human language is the sense of that language -- and culture. French, for instance, is a historical, social and political notion that is expressed linguistically as well. Thus, commonalties in culture (e.g. The French, English, Italian, Swiss, etc.) are amended by language -- in this case, the commonalties of linguistic structure as opposed to the way Chinese would not be common to French; either in language or in human culture (Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis 2003). In the late 1950s, however, psychologist B.F. Skinner took past theories and formulated a newer approach -- the behaviorist theory of language acquisition. In his 1957 book, Verbal Behavior, Skinner postulated that language was divisible into units and that was acquired through both repetition and reinforcement; it was a later step to move from repeating a word, "tree" for example, to understanding that the spoken and written words form a shorthand for an object; and that object need not be identical each time (e.g. The cognition that there is one general word for tree, but hundreds of examples) (Skinner 1992).
Some linguists embraced the theory, indicating that while it was incomplete, it did help explain some of the commonalties of linguistic behavior across cultures, and was at least a way to understand one of the aspects of language acquisition and development. Others, however, saw behaviorism as deconstruction in the worst sense; a way to look at only one small part of language, to ascribe only physical nuances and characteristics to something far more complex, and to simply take "old experimental psychology," dress it up with a new bit of frosting for theory, and supply the operative word "conditioning' in order to establish the veracity of linguistic culture (Carroll (ed.) 1956, 41). However, the very basis of this issue goes beyond just acquisition, and asks us to define the basis of usable linguistic theory in reference to robust discourse.
Definition of Discourse -- Discourse analysis, or discourse studies, is a broad term for a rubric of approaches to written, spoken, or signed language and the way the participants interact. The object of discourse analysis -- discourse, writing, talking, conversation -- really any communicative event, are typically defined much like basic linguistic phenomena -- patterns of sentences, propositions, speech acts, etc. However, contrary to much of traditional linguistics, discourse analysis not only focuses on the study of language use beyond sentence structure, it also works with naturally occurring language, and has relevance in a variety of social science fields (Blommaert 2005).
Discourse analysis is not so much a single defining "noun," but more a way of approaching linguistics -- a template, if you will, as a research method to thinking about a problem. It is neither completely quantitative nor completely qualitative, nor does it provide a tangible means of answering all the problems based on empirical research. Instead, as a method of research, it enable access to the ontological approach (proof via intuition and reason) combined with epistemological assumptions (how is knowledge acquired, how do we know what we know), when dealing with a project, statement, or even classification of text. In other words, by using the discourse analysis method, one can find the hidden motivations behind a text or behind a specific method of research; then interpret that as a way to understand the author or conversation better. Since every text, every author, indeed every conversation has multiple levels in which it can be understood, discourse analysis allows for a more robust look at the entire picture, not just what we initially read, see or hear (Frohmann 1992).
Discourse analysis is a theoretical approach to what we are all trying to do in the classroom -- that is implement Bloom's hierarchy and teach beyond rote so that students understand the necessity for analysis and synthesis; and that they know how to handle subjectivity within a text. While the term discourse analysis is relatively new, critical thinking about situations and text is not. What postmodern discourse theory does, though, is move from there being a single particular view of the world to one in which we can see the world as fragmented, and that individual interpretation is subjective -- an interpretation that is at least marginally conditioned by the social and cultural forces that surround us all. Somewhat akin to deconstruction, discourse analysis allows the community to actively participate in the interpretation of the conversation. It is interesting that almost a century ago, one of the pioneers of modern educational theory, John Dewey, defined critical thought as: "active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion to which it tends" (Dewey in Lyons (ed.) 2010).
The Discourse Community- In simple terms, a discourse community is a group of people who share a body of knowledge, group culture, or even something in common like language, interests, environments, or something even more unique -- a club, a meeting about an issue, or a classroom. Bringing people together from divergent group structures (demographics, psychographics, geographic, etc.) is quite common within the classroom, thus this becomes its own unique learning environment. In any language class, too, there is often far more discussion and group sharing simply because of the relationship of the individuals to the text and to the rest of the group (language learning tends to break down some social barriers) (Porter 1992). Within this context there are six important distinctions, first developed by Swales (1990) that help us define a context in which we may create a more robust basis for language learning. A discourse community:
1. Has a broadly agreed set of common, yet public, goals. For instance, in the classroom, the obvious goal is to ensure that a proper learning environment is available for students to learn a language; an effective curriculum available, and other specifics based on the particular class in question.
2. Have mechanisms of intercommunication among the members of the group. Any classroom, particularly that of a language learning environment has regular and clear sets of intercommunication between the instructor, the students, and between groups. Often, language communication is enhanced between members of the group
3. Uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback. In the language classroom, formative assessments (feedback) are both immediate and regular. Each time a student repeats a phrase, reads, or is asked to translate, feedback and information are transferred.
4. Utilizes and then possesses one of more genres of communication so that its aims are met and move forward. Each classroom is unique, but moreover, the very nature of language learning allows for a clear differentiation in communication (speaking, answering questions, dialog, writing, reading, role-playing, explaining drawings, etc.).
5. Has a specific lexis of opportunity. Usually, language learning is broken into a series of steps so that there is a broader understanding of expectations and learning targets. Each step has its own lexis of vocabulary, each part foundational towards the next.
6. Has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and expertise. Again, depending on the structure of the class, during…[continue]
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