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What does it actually MEAN when we say “language emerges”? As an EFL teacher, the best way I have found of explaining what a word means, is either through analogy or stories; and to explain “emergent language”, I have one of each.

Analogy: in a world where language – and more and more the English language –  is everywhere, all over and spread across all media, any sentient person cannot escape it. Logically then all sentient people have some kernel, or seed, or residue, or scrap, or trace of English somewhere on their hard disks – a word, a phrase, a song, a name. Place them in an ENGLISH language-rich environment, which is the “optimal condition”, and it WILL emerge. Place a seed in optimal conditions – warm, wet and light and it WILL emerge. The language will unfurl and expand like the plant. It may not appear exactly as it will be when fully developed, but it is there. And it is there that we need to focus our attention as teachers – train it, coax it up the bean pole, nip out the buds to encourage further growth and keep feeding and watering…..

And the story? One of my colleagues here is one of those that as a child, slipped through the net in the education system. Terrifically dyslexic, he is almost excluded from all written forms of language – they are essentially inaccessible to him. This meant that when he arrived here his spoken language was impoverished (not an unusual thing in the UK these days, where a lot of children don’t read or are not exposed to “optimal conditions” for language use). Slowly through the years he has spent here, being exposed to a language rich environment (he is surrounded by English teachers), his spoken language has grown and developed until it now belies the fact that he can barely read and has had very little formal education. No one expressly taught him  and whether the language he now uses was acquired or emerged, who’s to know? All I can say is what WAS there has grown and flourished because he has been in an environment that encourages speaking and speaking well and clearly.


4 responses »

  1. Pingback: Sometimes a prop is really the best thing —

  2. Pingback: Does Language Emerge? « Doing some thinking

  3. It is an interesting question, isn’t it? Where language comes from – where grammar comes from – and examples like these of poeple who technically, on paper, should not be able to master foregin langauges and yet they do…

    And I think of the fight between the linguists on whether or not it’s natural… whether or not language is created in isolations, whether children left alone develop languages, deaf children creating their own languages and teaching their own children generations later with grammatical structure…. and in response I tend to reflect on the nature of our humanity and I go to the basics of our needs and see that we humans simply must communicate with each other – no matter where we are or what words we have… all of life does this, whether we are fungus or fish… but it seems to be that grammar is an artificial placing done by each group only to make order to chaos, an attempt to make our communication more efficient but first came the need to talk to each other.

    I’m not sure if this on point to your post, but that’s what came out of brain this morning :-)))

  4. I’m going to write my metaphor about language soon, it’s like yours, language being a plant growing. I imagine the plant growing in our consciousness, its roots take up exophoric knowledge from the soil, which is our learning. When the plant dies, it decays and becomes new soil, thus allowing more advanced language on the subject to grow.


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