Grammar and linguistics: thoughts from a linguistics researcher and language teacher

Two giants in modern linguistics: Noam Chomsky and William Labov. Yet so little in common between them. Chomsky is the father of modern generative grammar who has published masterpiece after masterpiece about the mechanisms of human grammar and its biological/genetic implications. He has drawn a fine distinction between competence and performance, the former of which accounts for the internal mechanisms of human languages while the latter the actual use of language in real-life situations, and Chomsky has worked exclusively on the former. Labov, on the other hand, has done decades of research on the social implications of human language and how human language is shaped by different social settings. The two approaches are very different, but this does not mean that they are mutually exclusive. Yet there have been assertions that they are. In this post, I endeavour to provide examples which illustrate the mutual non-exclusiveness of Chomskian formal analyses and sociolinguistics.

As a language teacher, I have taught various languages to people all around the world: Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese Chinese, Spanish, English, Portuguese etc. As a native Cantonese speaker from Hong Kong, I have been astonished by how interest there is in the Western world for Cantonese Chinese, as it is a regional dialect with a relatively low number of speakers (and hence of somewhat limited use compared to the official language of China: Mandarin). I have taught Cantonese to a variety of students, who can be roughly divided into two obvious groups: Chinese and non-Chinese. There are numerous Chinese speakers who want to learn Cantonese, as it is kind of fun to learn another closely related dialect and expand one’s knowledge of one’s native language. I am currently in the process of learning Shanghainese, a very prominent Wu dialect, and it is proving to be very interesting indeed. I feel that I am learning a different type of my mother tongue- still my mother tongue, and I can certainly feel a strong affinity with it, but a different type. I have been most astonished by the number of Western people who want to learn Cantonese, since why on earth would they learn a regional dialect of China?

As these two groups of students have completely different linguistic (and cultural) background, I have devised two broad ways of teaching Cantonese: 1) grammar i.e. rules. This is a standard way of learning (and teaching) foreign languages, and I have used this with my Western students where I teach them verbs, nouns, adjectives and all the boring stuff that we all had to go through at school (!). 2) dialectal comparisons, which is VERY effective with Chinese students. Traditional and modern work on comparative Chinese linguistics has revealed a lot of similarities and differences between Chinese dialects, but the notion of proto-Sinitic is, as far as I know, still very strong in that it is still widely accepted that most (if not all) Chinese dialects descend from a common proto-language and all Chinese communities maintain a diglossic setting where the official dialect (Mandarin) and the local regional dialect alternate productively according to societal norms. Not only do scholars posit a proto-language for all the Chinese dialects, they also reconstruct a pan-Sinitic grammar which applies to all Chinese dialects (e.g. word order: S(ubject) Adverb V(erb) O(bject), co-verbs, D(emonstrative) Cl(assifier) N(oun) etc). Dialectal variations in China, therefore, are accounted for by microparameters (if I may use a technical linguistic device) which operate on a much smaller scale and are subsumed under macroparameters (another technical term) which span across China linguistically. When I teach Chinese speakers Cantonese, therefore, I do not start from the basic rudiments of Cantonese grammar, as there is no need for them to know the nitty-gritty of Cantonese (or Mandarin) grammar. Rather, I assume their Mandarin Chinese background and go straight to the comparative dialectal features which separate Mandarin and Cantonese (I have never taught Cantonese to a Chinese speaker whose native dialect is closer to Cantonese than Mandarin (not that they are particularly close) or whose native dialect I personally speak myself (I only know Mandarin, Cantonese and a small amount of Wu), but I were to teach a speaker whose native dialect is even closer to Cantonese (e.g. Min, Hakka), then this dialectal comparative method would be even more effective).

Here are some examples: pronouns. The Chinese pronominal system is consistent in many dialects: wo(-men) (1st person sg/pl), ni(-men) (2nd person sg/pl), ta(-men) (3rd person sg/pl) in Mandarin, and in Cantonese they are ngoh(-dei) (1st person sg/pl), nei(-dei) (2nd person sg/pl), kui(-dei) (3rd person sg/pl). The distribution of person and plural features is identical between Chinese dialects, and the morphophonological shapes between some of these forms are also recognisable (e.g. wo-ngoh (1st person), ni-nei (2nd person), partly because these are the same characters). I therefore would not bother with explaining the grammatical theory behind Chinese pronouns but go straight to explaining the dialectal correspondences e.g. -men/-dei (plural suffix), ta/kui (3rd person). These dialectal correspondences are not perfect in that Cantonese -dei is not identical to Mandarin -men (this has led to some rather comic hyper-generalisations by some of my students…!), but it is nonetheless a real correspondence which greatly enhances Chinese speakers’ ability of understanding and using Cantonese.

This is a very simple illustration of how human grammar in the form of Chinese dialects is conditioned by sociolinguistic factors (e.g. dialectology), and by devising a way of teaching which takes into consideration the linguistic background of the student(s) in question one can achieve some very effective results. More on this in the future.

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