The Importance of Linguistics to a Language Teacher

Language teachers have long debated the impact that different linguistic theories have on teaching languages; some have denied any influence, others rejected some theories in favor of others. Linguistics is the scientific study of the language; language teachers could use linguistics to find better ways to teach languages. However, since the two disciplines have different aims, it’s better to take linguistic theories with a grain of salt.

  1. Pattern Recognition in Learning a Language

    • One way to teach a second language, especially vocabulary, is to point out similarities and differences between the target language -- the new language being taught -- and another language familiar to the students, preferably their mother tongue. This method will help the students acquire a basic understanding of the new language. To identify such patterns, however, teachers should apply the type of linguistic theory most appropriate to the situation.

    Error Analysis: Identifying a Language's "False Friends"

    • Speakers of two languages sometimes use “false friends” -- words with the same form as in their native language, but with a different meaning in the new language. For instance, English speakers wrongly translate the French word “coin” as “currency,” when in fact, it means “corner.” Teachers with good psycholinguistic backgrounds make students aware of such mistakes and the reasons behind them, thus helping them correct themselves. This method is called error analysis.

    Comparative/Historical Linguistics as Background

    • Teachers can also use comparative linguistics to explain similarities in vocabulary or syntax between the two languages. This method works best when languages have a common origin -- for example, teaching Spanish to natives of a Romance language or English to speakers of a Germanic language. Also, by learning about the historical background of these languages, students can understand better that a language constantly evolves, just like a living organism.

    The Communicative Approach and Social Context

    • Sociolinguists realized that to be able to master a language, learners should know more than just grammar; they should also know how to use the new language in different social contexts. Teachers have further developed the idea by finding methods to help students attain the ability to use the new language in these social contexts -- for example, when to use formal and when to use informal speech. These methods establish the communicative approach.

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