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University Notes Block 1- Introducing English language studies

Unit 1- What is language?

In this Unit:

  • learn that language is an ever-changing, flexible and adaptable means of communication

  • learn that language is used not just to exchange information, but also to express who we are, our views, feelings and social relationships

  • learn that effective study, like language, involves interactive and dynamic communication.

Language is an integral part of our lives. We listen to it in conversation, on the radio, on the TV and through our mobile phones. We read it in emails, newspapers, study materials and scribbled notes. We use it to greet our friends, order a coffee, express how we feel or ask for information. In fact, it is hard to imagine how we could navigate our way through life without it. Language is such a common and pervasive feature of our everyday existence that we rarely think about what it is and how we use it.

Dictionary format: How the word is spelt (Keen) ---how the word sounds( ki:n) ---how the word functions grammatically (adj, verb)---what the word means---how the word might be used in context---where the word originates from.

Word Classes: The term word class is used by linguists to describe the grammatical function of a word. Words belong to different categories or word classes, depending on how they are used and the way they work. Identifying the word class that a word belongs to helps us to describe how it contributes to the meaning of a phrase, utterance or sentence. In traditional grammar texts, another term for word class is part of speech E.G.: Nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are all examples of word classes.

Context: The term context is used extensively in the study of language, particularly by scholars interested in the relationship between language and society. Context is a complex term which can be used to refer to a range of things, including, for example:

  • the immediate settings and circumstances in which language is used

  • the domain of life in which it is used (for example, home, school, business, healthcare)

  • the cultural and social expectations surrounding its use

  • the social identities and relationships of those using it

  • who it’s aimed at and what it is being used to achieve.

Interlocutor(s) (pronounced interLOCutor): the person you’re talking with, or the people who are talking with one another. Examples: Two or more people chatting casually would be termed interlocutors. A police officer and suspect, shop assistant and customer engaged in a purchase, or journalist and interviewee would be termed interlocutors. However, we would not usually use this term to describe an actor or broadcaster and their audience.

Utterance: a single word, several words in a string, or just any sound used by a speaker. Linguists find the term utterance useful because not everything we say or write forms full sentences, so it is useful to have a broader term which covers everything we say or write. Examples: hmmm, uhuh, or laughter.

Activity 2.1:

  1. I use a samsung phone, so Amazon’s Alexa is the virtual assistant i have used the most. I have the Alexa assistant on my phone and I also purchased an ‘echo dot’ for my home. I use the home assistant to set timers, read the news and speak to my partner through text to speech software when I am out of the house. It definitely doesn't compare to communicating with a human. It's a very robotic tone of voice and almost always gets my command wrong. It has a few fun softwares where you can ask it jokes, but it just gives simple question and answer jokes instead of complex or dark humour jokes.

  2. I believe that it would take a lot of research and coding to get a computer or robot machine to speak like that of a human. It takes years for a human child to learn the language, and then some humans take the rest of their lives to understand compassion and context. Because robots will not ever understand human emotion, or understand how identity affects the language, they will never actually be able to speak our language fully because most of our language is spoken out of passion or emotion. As the reading explains, even though we’ve seen huge leaps forward in the capabilities of digital technology in the last few decades we’re still a long way from seeing a machine which is truly able to use language in the same way that a human can. There are several reasons for this, but one is the complex role that language plays in our lives. It is not simply a means for communicating factual information. It’s also closely tied up with issues such as identity, with how we relate to each other, and with how we (try to) make sense of the world. In other words, for a computer to fully get to grips with human language – that is to produce and interpret language in the same way a human does – it would also need to fully get to grips with what it means to be human!

  3. Language changes as the generations and situations change. Back in the war time, social class status was more important due to wealth being so scarce, therefore people were taught how to speak ‘properly’. Now-a-days, there is less importance put on speaking ‘properly’ due to the importance put on speed and level of difficulty in today's society. Children have phones, and everything is slightly easier to communicate with, so the spoken tongue is shortened down to be accommodated.

Language is flexible and adaptable. It is this very adaptability which makes it so hard to pin down. It changes, not only in the moment of everyday communication but also over periods of historical time. A defining characteristic of a living language is that it is never static. A language can only be static when it dies. Language is much more than just a way to communicate information; it’s also a way to express things like viewpoint and emotion, and a way of relating to other people. Language is, therefore, an integral part of what it means to be human. As such, studying language can shed light on our own human nature and how we interact with the people around us.

Unit 2- Language and context

Language evolves because we, as individual language users, are able to adapt our language to the circumstances we find ourselves in and the communicative ends that we are trying to achieve. However, being able to modify what we say and write to fit a specific context can sometimes be a challenge, even for the most skilful of speakers.

In this unit:

  • learn how language shapes and is shaped by its context

  • learn how we adapt our own language to the contexts we meet

  • continue to explore how to approach communication and learning effectively in the context of university distance learning.

We adjust our language to suit:

  • who we’re communicating with

  • what we’re communicating about

  • the technology we’re using (if any).

Language feature is used by linguists as an umbrella term to refer to the forms of language which they want to describe. Sometimes the phrase used is linguistic feature, or feature on its own. A language feature can be an aspect of pronunciation, intonation, vocabulary, grammar, spelling or letter design. The term feature can also be used to describe other aspects of language in use; for example, when studying conversations, linguists may refer to interruptions, overlaps or pauses as conversational features. Features of visual communication might include use of colour, font style and size, layout and so on.

We’re not usually consciously aware of the communicative norms we operate by. In fact, we usually only become conscious of them when we are in an environment where other people seem to use different norms. This is why, when travelling in another country, you may get the impression that the locals are friendly, lively, reserved or whatever, chiefly because their norms, especially those relating to communication, are different from yours. Norms are attitudes and behaviours which are considered normal in a particular social group. Communicative norms are ways of speaking and writing which are considered normal in a particular group, society or culture, and such norms frequently differ from one culture or group to another. They also tend to change over time. Generally speaking, people belonging to a particular group are expected to conform to the communicative norms of the group, though this does not mean they always choose to do so. Ideas about what is ‘normal’ in speech or writing are also referred to as conventions.

Uses of speech and writing which depart from the cultural norms in any given context, or which depart from the communicative norms of others, are liable to be labelled ‘bad’, ‘wrong’ or ‘inappropriate’. A mismatch of communicative norms can lead to miscommunication or offence. What counts as appropriate language use is closely related to the idea of communicative norms. However, the concept of appropriateness places more emphasis on the importance of context. Within any social group, what is considered inappropriate in one context may be considered perfectly suitable in others. Ideas of what kinds of language use are considered appropriate are always bound up with the relative power and status of different social groups.

In order to capture the nature of speech and conversation, linguists have developed ways of writing down, or transcribing, them. A written representation of spoken language in use is called a transcript. Since the invention of audio recording, it has been possible to develop transcription methods which capture a great deal of detail; for example, pauses, overlapping speech, pitch and volume of speakers’ voices, and non-verbal features such as laughter or sighs. Many transcripts also include visual information such as gaze (where the speakers are looking) and gesture. Transcripts have their own special conventions and symbols which are used to identify particular features of speech and conversation. Transcripts are usually accompanied by a transcription key (similar to a map key) which gives information about what the symbols mean. Although many of these symbols are in common use in English language studies, transcripts and the conventions they use always differ according to the particular interests of the researchers.

When communicating with others, it is important to be aware of the possibility that they might be operating under different ‘rules of engagement’ than you. When you’re in an unfamiliar situation, such as when travelling abroad, you’re likely to be more alert to the possibility of miscommunication. However, it’s good to be aware of such potential breakdowns wherever you are, and to be open to the possibility of different cultural norms being in operation. Digital written communication has its own particular hazards. There are some digital contexts where – in contrast to more traditional forms of writing, such as using pen and paper, perhaps sent by post – contributors have little time to think about how they are going to communicate their message.

Adapting the phrasing of a message to its context is something that we do routinely and even naturally. However, this can be more difficult in a context where you’re not familiar with, or confident about, the context you’re in. In such cases, we may need to think more carefully about how we put things into words, at least at first. This applies to university studies in the same way as it might, for example, to a new job or living in a different country. In an online environment, one of the challenges, as has already been mentioned, is the fact that you cannot see your interlocutor. This can make contributing to a student forum, for example, a bit daunting. It can sometimes feel like a room of one-way mirrors which are all looking in on you! However, it is important to remember that your fellow students are in the same boat as you and that communication will become easier as you get to know your fellow participants.

Avoidance language highlights the ways that social relationships and power inequalities shape language use, and how this is regulated by sometimes quite strict social convention. For example, in Kambaata and other societies, traditionally, rigid social conventions determine how brides speak to their parents-in-law. The argument is not that avoidance language is particularly unique or special – although it is likely to be unfamiliar to a lot of people – but that it reflects similar situations elsewhere, in which people’s interactions with certain people are constrained in terms of the language they use. The fact that the use of avoidance language is declining reveals changes in people’s social relationships, namely a move towards more equal power relations – something which we might argue parallels similar changes in other societies.

One of the distinctive communicative norms of academic reading and writing is the need to reference your sources. This aspect of university language practice is a fundamental part of academic culture and as a result is sometimes left unexplained and taken for granted. This can mean it takes on a mysterious quality, which means students can sometimes get unnecessarily anxious about it.

Referencing is a necessary part of academic writing, not just an optional add-on. One of the important functions of referencing is that it allows a reader to trace the sources that a writer draws upon. Another function of referencing is to ensure that you properly attribute ideas that you’ve mentioned to the person who originally came up with those ideas (that is, you should give credit to your original sources). If a writer discusses an idea from another source and doesn’t reference that source, then they appear to be claiming the idea for themselves. In academic cultures, it is regarded as fundamental to give your reader the ability to locate and read a source, and to know whose words and ideas are being drawn on. If a writer doesn’t do this, it’s likely to be considered poor practice and can lead to claims of plagiarism or even dishonesty. Furthermore, if a writer references materials they use, it shows that they’ve read relevant sources and demonstrates academic credibility.

Unit 3- Debating the rules of language

In this Unit:

  • learn how ideas about what’s right and wrong in language use came about

  • be introduced to two different approaches to language: prescriptive and descriptive

  • become aware of the social implications of evaluating people based on their language use

  • familiarise yourself with key terms for describing language use.

One aspect of language use which is frequently a subject of debates about rules and standards is grammar. Such is the importance attached to grammar that people often use the term loosely to mean almost any aspect of language. Linguists, on the other hand and as you might expect, use the term in a more precise way. Understanding grammar is crucial in appreciating how language works; and grammar terminology is really useful when it comes to talking about language features.

Morphology is a term used for one of the two components of grammar which relates to the various forms words may take in order to make meaning (the other component is syntax, below). The term morphology is also used to refer to the branch of linguistics that deals with how words are formed and structured. Morphological features refer to particular language elements that help change (or morph) a word into something else.

The ending -s is a morphological feature which typically when added to a noun changes it from referring to a single thing (singular) to referring to many things (plural). Another example of a morphological feature is the ending -able. This when added to a verb turns that verb into an adjective that refers to whether an action is possible or not – for example, climb can become climbable. The same ending -able when added to a word stem similarly produces an adjective – for example, the adjective durable is made up of the stem dur- (derived from a Latin word meaning ‘to last’) and the ending -able.

Syntax is a term used for one of the two components of grammar which relates to how words and strings of words are arranged to make meaning (the other component of grammar is morphology, above). The term syntax is also used to refer to the branch of linguistics that deals with the structure of sentences. Syntactic features refer to the functions that words or strings of words may have in a sentence, in relation to other words. The fact that the reasons behind people’s judgements about different forms of language are social rather than linguistic is why, in language studies, the neutral term non-standard is used to describe those features and varieties of language which are often stigmatised. The term standard English refers to varieties of English characterised by forms to which people try to adhere in formal contexts, such as writing a job application or making an official speech. However, you should remember that standard varieties are intrinsically no more communicatively efficient than non-standard ones. Their value is socially determined.

Most people often unconsciously assume things about other people based on the language they use. This might involve treating or thinking about someone in a certain way because of the words they choose or how they sound – for example, you might think someone sounds highly educated or writes as though she or he is from a particular part of the world. That person’s language use might also lead you to make assumptions about her or his culture, politics or religious beliefs. While most assumptions will remain unspoken, sometimes language features may be called into question and evaluated, both positively and negatively.

Unit 4- Writing and other technologies

In this Unit:

  • find out how different writing systems have developed over time

  • consider how each method we use to communicate has its own advantages and limitations which help shape the messages we send

  • learn how, with the use of new technologies, the boundary between written and spoken language is becoming fuzzier

  • begin to appreciate how extended written texts can be organised in order to help the reader.

Mode refers to how a message is represented. A message might be conveyed through the sounds of speech, through the graphic system of writing, through the precise gestures of sign language, or through images, as in the case of some road signs. There are others – think for example of braille, where messages are transmitted through touch.

It would be misleading to regard the spoken, written and visual modes as necessarily discrete. For example, in face-to-face interaction the spoken mode is ordinarily accompanied by the visual mode, in the form of cues such as body language. Also, writing could itself arguably be categorised as visual – so it’s a matter of debate whether, for example, the font used in a written text is a written or visual resource.

Dysfluency is a term to describe a feature of spontaneous spoken language whereby ‘normal’ flow is interrupted and which arises due to the challenges of speaking and listening ‘in the moment’, when there’s little or no time to plan.

Ellipsis is a term used in linguistics to describe a common characteristic of spoken language whereby elements are omitted because they are already clear from the context.

Vague language occurs because people tend to be less precise when speaking than when writing, partly as a way to ensure that they don’t sound too emphatic when stating opinions or facts.

Although writing and speaking have long been seen as distinct modes, the boundaries between them are becoming fuzzier. Digital platforms have enabled people to enter new kinds of communicative spaces, and these may – to a greater or lesser degree – exhibit some of the characteristics traditionally thought of as typical of spoken language. Although in written interaction you can’t directly draw on such communicative resources as tone of voice or facial expression, you’ve already seen how you can reinforce its message in other ways. One such resource which has become a common feature of modern digital communication is the emoji.

The word lexicon is often used to describe the range of vocabulary in a language. You would typically go to a dictionary to find words in the lexicon of a particular language, so compilers and editors of dictionaries are often called lexicographers.

Lexis is similar in meaning to lexicon as it refers to the vocabulary of a language. However, the context in which it’s used is often one where it is differentiated from grammar. Lexical words such as cat, future or crisis carry most of the meaning in an utterance or sentence. On the other hand, grammatical words (also known as function words) such as the, and and of may have little meaning on their own but are important because they show the grammatical relationship between words in a text.

The term lexicon can be used for languages or modes of communication which use pictograms, such as emojis, or ideograms, such as Chinese, as well as those employing an alphabet. It is also used to describe the vocabulary available in languages which are not written down.

Effective communicators are able to exploit a particular mode’s affordances and can find ways of compensating for its constraints. This is true of all types of language use, including pieces of extended writing such as articles or university essays. These are ideal for conveying complex ideas (readers can go back over them and re-read them if necessary). Even so, unless the author of an extended piece of writing is careful to guide the reader through the ideas in the text, there is a high risk the reader will get lost. This can be understood as a limitation or constraint which then in turn shapes the way language is used in extended writing.

You’ve seen how a key aspect of being able to communicate effectively in extended writing is to structure and organise ideas effectively. This characteristic of writing is particularly relevant to writing for academic study, which involves planning how to sequence what you want to say and using paragraphing to show the reader how you’re grouping and contrasting ideas. Within a paragraph, at the sentence level it’s also important to introduce and link ideas effectively to show your reader where you’re going and, at the end, where you’ve been.

As a writer you can make your own texts easy to follow and show a clear argument by making sure you organise your ideas into paragraphs and clearly state the focus of each paragraph, even if this isn’t always at the very start of each paragraph.

As a reader you can save time and get a good overview, especially of longer texts you come across, by focusing on key areas of the text, including the opening sentences of paragraphs. In this way you can get the ‘gist’ of a piece of writing relatively quickly. In turn, this can help you approach the text actively with questions when you come to study it in more detail.

There are a multitude of different ways in which we can now communicate that were not available to us a few short years ago. The most effective communicators are those who are able to adapt their language to circumstances, using the affordances and creatively overcoming the constraints of the means that they use to get across their messages. You’ve seen in this unit how communication technologies have changed and how effective communicators are able to adapt their messages to utilise them.

Despite exciting and rapid developments in telecommunications in recent years, remember that the most profound technological revolution in language use came thousands of years ago with the invention of writing. Being able to organise our messages effectively within the two-dimensional space of paper or screen is now a crucial skill in many fields of activity, including that of university study, and this can help you prioritise your reading.

Unit 5- Communicating in diversity

In this Unit:

  • become aware of how people communicate when they have no common language

  • learn about the importance of other resources beyond words which are used for communication

  • understand how people may draw on the range of non-verbal communicative resources

  • start to explore the meanings of words and how they relate to each other.

Successful communication is not just a matter of choosing the right words and stringing them together appropriately. When speaking, people also use gesture, facial expression and tone of voice, among other things, to get their meanings across. Writers draw on further resources beyond the words themselves, such as emoji, punctuation and font (such as choosing Times New Roman or Comic Sans).

It’s useful to differentiate a word’s sense (its primary or dictionary meaning, also known as its denotation) from what it’s referring to in a particular instance (its referent). Synonymy is not the only sense relation between words. For example, buy and sell are clearly related in meaning, but they’re not synonymous. In fact, they are antonyms – opposites – in that, in terms of meaning, they sit at opposite sides of the same transaction, in much the same way as lend and borrow do. However, there are other types of antonym. Guilty and innocent are also antonyms but have a different relationship. If you’re guilty you can’t be innocent and vice versa. Words like dead and alive also have this binary relationship. Given that synonyms are not fully interchangeable and that some suit particular contexts more than others, one challenge of writing in an academic style is the ability to choose words that are appropriate to academic study but that still convey the meanings you intend.

One of the forces that help shape academic writing styles is the need for the writer to appear calm and considered in approaching a particular issue or topic. As such, academic writers generally choose words and phrases which don’t carry strongly evaluative meanings and connotations. This doesn’t mean that every word used in an academic context is completely neutral. It does mean that academic writers tend to take care that any implied evaluation in the words they choose is justified with reference to the evidence available, and that a strong case is made. They also tend to be quite cautious or muted in their evaluations, resulting in a somewhat ‘objective’ style. What seems appropriate when writing one kind of academic text – such as an essay or report – may not be appropriate for another, such as a forum post, presentation or blog.

When using a thesaurus in your academic writing it’s also worth remembering that it’s more important that your reader can easily make sense of the points you’re making than it is to sound ‘academic’ in terms of your style. Although it’s useful to be able to use specific terms and phrases which are used in your area of study, and it’s also useful to be able to vary your vocabulary sometimes, it’s certainly not essential to couch your points in flowery, ‘posh’ or elaborate language. However, word choice is not the whole story. Academic writing doesn’t just involve selecting the right words, it’s also important to put those words together in such a way that you express your ideas clearly and effectively.

Unit 6- The study of language

In this Unit:

  • find out about some of the different interests of linguists

  • familiarise yourself with key ideas and approaches in the study of language

  • consolidate your understanding of what language is

  • practise some of the different techniques that can be employed when reading academic texts.

In a literate society, reading is an everyday activity: it can take many forms and is done for many different reasons. In the specific contexts of higher education, specific reading practices arise. For example, academics need to keep abreast of what’s happening in their areas of interest, which means looking at specialist journals. As well as looking at and commenting on colleagues’ writing, they also have to read their students’ assignments. All these activities involve different types of reading. On some occasions you need to read slowly and carefully, for instance when you’re aiming to understand new ideas and concepts in your core module materials. On other occasions you also have to look quickly through various sources to get a general idea about which materials are relevant to your purposes. Sometimes you need to look for specific information in an article.

Another useful reading technique is scanning, which is what you need to do when searching for specific information. This involves looking for keywords within a piece of text. It’s the kind of reading we routinely do, for example, when looking for the vegetarian options on a restaurant menu, or searching in a local paper for the time or date of a performance. In order to scan a text efficiently you need to ‘cast your eye’ over it, allowing your gaze, as you read, to come to rest only on any word or words which are of interest. You can then pause briefly to absorb any information which immediately surrounds each key word – that is, to work out what’s being said in relation to them – without getting distracted into reading larger chunks.

Unit 7- Preparing for TMA01

  • identify and comment on similarities and/or differences between your own communicative repertoire and that of the student whose post you’re responding to

  • connect the post with a relevant concept that you’ve encountered in your study of Block 1 of the module and that aren’t mentioned or discussed in detail in the original message

  • compare or contrast the post with another example you’ve encountered on the module or elsewhere

  • develop any points in the original message that you think throw light on language and and identity

  • raise any questions that you think are relevant to the links between communicative repertoires, communicative resources and speaker identity.

Recap of Block One:

  • Language is an essential aspect of what it means to be human. As you saw in Unit 1, despite the huge scientific advances in artificial intelligence we’re a long way from having computers that can communicate just like humans do.

  • Language is fundamentally a social phenomenon. This means that language is shaped by the contexts of its use. In Unit 2, for instance, you reflected on the many factors you take into account more or less instinctively when you choose the words you need to communicate with others in your everyday life. You also saw how our language choices, including the words we opt to avoid, tend to be culturally or socially influenced. And it’s not just our language use that is influenced by social conventions and norms; it’s also our ideas about what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ language. As you saw in Unit 3, such opinions in fact represent value judgements about particular language varieties and their speakers which are driven by social factors rather than by considerations about the nature of language.

  • Language changes all the time as society and technologies change. In Unit 1 you learned about how the meanings of words may change over time, as with the word train and its use as a retronym in the expression overground train. And in Unit 3 you saw how innovations in language use, as with the introduction of abbreviations such as OMG in text-messaging and other forms of digital communication, often lead to moral panics in the media about ‘declining standards’ in language use. But language is a flexible and adaptable tool of communication. In Unit 4 you explored how communication technologies, such as writing or the internet, influence language, making it possible to transcend the constraints of time and place and at the same time altering the nature of language itself and how we use it. In Units 4 and 5 you considered how language users draw creatively on different modes, including sounds, letters and images, balancing their affordances and constraints so as to maximise the impact and reach of their messages. This was illustrated using the examples of the WaterAid campaign and communication in Birmingham’s diverse city market.

  • Linguists’ knowledge about language comes from the careful examination of the evidence of what people actually do when they communicate with each other, and how they do this. As you saw in Unit 6, examining evidence is one of the main jobs of those whose contributions make up the field of linguistics and its many sub-branches. Linguistics is concerned with describing different kinds of language rather than prescribing any form of language, with language elements ranging from small units such as sounds and words right up to stretches of spoken interaction, written texts and digital exchanges, and also including such features as gestures, and signage within the public landscape. Linguistic insights can be applied to a range of domains within education, health, politics and policy, and may prove useful in addressing real-world challenges such as social inequality.

  • Learning how to study is an important part of study.Academic language, like any other kind of language, is shaped by the purposes and contexts of its use. You’ve started to explore some of the ways in which academic texts are structured and how to approach both reading and writing such texts. You’ve also begun to learn about important academic conventions such as referencing and about the study resources available to you, including dictionaries. Some of the terms you encountered in this block, such as the terms used in grammatical description you learned about in Unit 3, will help you start to describe language in its contexts of use.

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