Why Is Linguistics Important for English Language Learning?


The results of research in various fields of linguistics are an essential foundation for teaching foreign languages.

However, some people who are unaware of recent developments in linguistics, especially cognitive linguistics, have the mistaken stereotype that linguistics is useless for language teaching because of their opposition to the formalistic linguistic theories that were popular in the past. If such a misconception becomes common, the basic foundations of foreign language teaching may be shaken. In this essay, we will demonstrate the importance of a cognitive-linguistic approach to various aspects of foreign language teaching.

What does it mean to acquire a language?

For many people, their native language comes naturally, but learning a foreign language requires a great deal of effort and time. A closer look at the details reveals that mastering a foreign language in a few years requires careful planning.

Let’s take learning English as an example. Curriculum-wise, it appears to cover all four skills: pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, reading comprehension, conversation (listening and speaking), writing, and presentation. However, the essentials contained in textbooks represent only a small portion of the English actually used. Acquisition of systematic basic knowledge is essential and could be enhanced by utilizing the results of linguistics.

Vocabulary, grammar, conversation, and reading are closely related to each other. It is not advisable to teach them in isolation without considering their relevance.

Grammar and vocabulary are at the heart of language teaching. Foreign language education begins with learning how to combine basic nouns and verbs and how to change forms according to tense, aspect, and voice. From there, students progress to “describing situations” and “expressing attitudes”. Clearly, grammar is the starting point for language learning.

The problem is that there is a lack of common understanding about the scope of grammar education. There are misconceptions that “grammar and conversation are separate” and that “grammar learning and vocabulary learning can be done separately.” Cognitive linguistics believes that vocabulary, grammar, conversation, and reading are continuous and need to be taught in a related manner.

Of course, there are aspects that can be more effectively taught separately to some extent as a class subject. There are differences in the speed at which information develops and the expressions used in conversation and reading comprehension. It may be necessary to systematically study spoken and written expressions, respectively.

Cognitive linguistics views vocabulary and grammar as a continuum. To construct sentences, knowledge of both vocabulary and grammar is essential. Verbs, in particular, must be understood in conjunction with grammatical knowledge. The structure of a sentence, consisting of a subject and a predicate, reflects universal human cognitive judgments.

In addition, there are grammatical elements associated with verbs, such as nominative, accusative, dative, and ablative cases. While these reflect universal cognition, they also differ from language to language. For example, English has a more developed transitive construction than Japanese, and inanimate subjects are used more often. Understanding and teaching these differences between languages is one of the fundamental issues in foreign language education.

The choice of grammatical form according to the speaker’s intention is another example of the continuity between grammar and conversation. In Japanese, the subject can be freely omitted, but in English, the passive voice is often used to blur the subject. The choice of tense and mood is also closely related to the speaker’s intention.

The relationship between grammar and reading comprehension cannot be ignored. There are certain grammatical items, such as emphatic constructions and object fronting, that are appropriate to use depending on the flow of information. The relationship between information flow and grammar has been studied from the perspectives of cognitive linguistics, functional linguistics, discourse grammar, and text linguistics.

Thus, grammar has a wide range of aspects, from basic sentence patterns to judgments of appropriateness according to the flow of conversation and text.

Vocabulary can be learned incidentally through thematic and scene-specific conversation and reading materials, but systematic vocabulary-building classes would also be effective. However, it is not advisable to have students memorize vocabulary words in isolation. It is important to have students understand polysemy, synonyms, collocations, and so on. Particular attention should be paid to cases where the same Japanese word is expressed differently in a foreign language. Vocabulary must be organized and taught from a cognitive linguistic perspective.

As described above, grammar, vocabulary, conversation, and reading comprehension should be taught in relation to each other based on a cognitive framework. Foreign language teaching that neglects knowledge of linguistics will not succeed.

Next, let us look at the paradigm shift in linguistics. Some people who are unaware of recent developments in linguistics, especially cognitive linguistics, have the misconception that linguistics is useless for language teaching because of a backlash against the formalist linguistic theories that once flourished. If such a misconception becomes widespread, the foundation of foreign language education may be shaken. In this section, we will give an overview of new trends in linguistics.

Linguistics has a long and profound history. It can be broadly divided into “philology,” which is the historical study of language, and “linguistics,” which focuses on theoretical structures. The relationship between the two is complex and interdependent. It is important to understand that there are many different fields and schools of linguistics.

In 19th-century Europe, descriptive studies of various languages advanced as the world expanded. In particular, the systematic study of Indo-European languages flourished and came to be known as “comparative linguistics”.

Saussure, on the other hand, advocated the study of the structure and nature of language. Concepts such as language as a system of signs, syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations have been adopted by modern linguistics.

It was during the period when Chomsky’s generative grammar was flourishing that linguistics came to be viewed through a special lens. Chomsky’s theory has both merits and demerits. While it contributed to the development of cognitive science by regarding language as a mental process, it also failed to adequately explain the reality of language as a result of its exclusion of meaning.

From this, misunderstandings arose that “theoretical linguistics does not consider meaning and culture” and “it is not useful for language education”. However, theoretical linguistics is not limited to generative grammar. Theories have been developed to explain specific aspects of language in such fields as cognitive linguistics, functional linguistics, pragmatics, contrastive linguistics, discourse analysis, and sociolinguistics.

Cognitive linguistics is related to these fields and has a wide range of applications in language teaching.

First, there is the structural understanding of vocabulary. Cognitive linguistics views metaphor and metonymy as the basic cognitive processing of language. We use words with known concepts and semantic frames as cues to verbalize unknown events. Metaphorical extensions, in which mental events are represented by physical words, are found in all languages. Metonymy is similar, often representing one event with another related word. Cognitive linguistic explanations are important in understanding the semantic extensions of polysemous words.

The use of synonyms is also essential to a better understanding of vocabulary. Emotional connotations, social nuances, and differences in meaning due to collocations must be understood. Words should be acquired together with cognitive and semantic frames; it is not enough to simply replace them with native language equivalents. Collocations must be understood in terms of cognitive semantics and taught systematically.

A cognitive-semantic approach is also effective in understanding syntax. Why are people able to produce sentences? Generative grammar explains this by combining abstract rules, but cognitive linguistics emphasizes the correspondence between cognitive frames and syntax, and the motivation of syntax based on meaning. For example, the fact that English uses transitive constructions more than Japanese can be explained by differences in cognitive semantics. Constructions expressing causation or perception, inanimate subject constructions, etc., can also be explained in terms of cognitive semantics. Even infinitives and gerunds have cognitive motivations for their use.

Thus, the use of constructions and sentence patterns is closely related to cognitive semantics. Cognitive linguistics is essential to explain and help people understand this.

Now, as we have seen, recent developments in linguistics, especially cognitive linguistics, have greatly increased its applicability to language teaching. It is important to systematize the relationship between vocabulary, grammar, conversation, and reading comprehension based on linguistic findings.

In foreign language education, knowledge of linguistics and English linguistics is indispensable and essential to increase the effectiveness of education. In order to systematically develop language skills, the results of linguistics must be incorporated into teaching and the curriculum must be systematized. There is also an urgent need to increase the number of faculty members who properly appreciate linguistics and understand its usefulness.

For the development of foreign language departments, further integration of linguistics and language education should be promoted. It is hoped that systematic education based on linguistic theory will enhance the quality of foreign language education.