1.1.1 Monolithic Concepts of Language

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Concept

Many people have a monolithic concept of English and other languages

A person with very strong monolithic assumptions about language might believe some of the following:

Each language is a single object

    • There is a countable number of languages in the world, each with its own name and community of speakers.
    • Human beings are normally native speakers of a single language, that of their nation and culture.

Each language has clear boundaries

    • Where a language is spoken can be marked precisely on a map.
    • Each word belongs to a different language; it’s clear what is a word in the language and what isn’t.
    • Successful bilingual speakers have two languages in their heads and keep them separate; but many bilinguals know incomplete versions of each language, and therefore mix them up when speaking.

Each language has an unambiguous shape and form

    • Each language has a grammar (recorded in grammar books) and a vocabulary (recorded in dictionaries). Only the rules in the grammar books are correct, and only the words found in the dictionary are real words.
    • A lot of people don’t know 'correct' grammar; they also use words which are really ‘dialect’ or ‘slang’ and therefore not proper parts of the language.
    • Where there are different forms of a language (dialects and accents), these are deviations from the ‘standard’ form and are only legitimate in their region of origin.
    • Learning grammar requires studying and memorising a single set of rules and applying them correctly.

Each language is uniform and stable

    • A language has a single structure, even though people might misuse it, have local varieties of it, or learn incorrect versions of it.
    • Although new words can be added to languages to respond to new meanings, other changes usually reflect declining standards.
    • The best examples of how the language should be used are in the great literature of the past.

Few people, and almost certainly no language teachers, will believe all these statements without exception. But monolithic assumptions like these often underlie our practices as teachers, as well as the expectations and practices of the learners we teach.