Views of the English language


White (1996: 85) points out:

A theory of language acquisition depends on a theory of language. We cannot decide how something is acquired without having an idea of what that something is.

So what is human language? What are the features that distinguish it from other animals’ communication systems? Most importantly, it’s arbitary: the forms of linguistic signs bear no natural resemblance to their meaning. The word “house” doesn’t rememble a house. The second is that it operates in such a way that meaningless elementary structures of language combine to make meaning; the sounds of a language combinine to make words, and the words combine to make sentences. But it’s precisely the arbitariness and duality of human languages that give them such variety and flexibility, and this leads to linguists resorting to models, i.e., simplified abstractions, which aim at identifying key features and discovering how the language works. Physicists do the same thing in their field.

A Rule-governed System

Linguists (usually) assume that language is a stable body of knowledge of linguistic forms and their functions, established by convention in a community. Saussure (1966) argued that linguists should study ‘langue’, the abstract code, and separate it out from ‘parole’, made up of the countless individual utterances observable when people use the language. Chomsky made a comparable distinction between ‘competence’, the knowledge that native speakers have of their language as a systen of abstract formal relations, and ‘performance’, their actual  utterances. So we might replace the question “What is human language? with “What does knowledge of human language consist of?” This will provide us with the required first part of a theory of SLA: it will tell us what the knowledge acquired in SLA consists of.


Before Chomsky came along, the field of linguistics was dominated, at least in the US, by structuralists, led by Bloomfield (1984), who studied languages in rather the same way as ornathologists studied birds. Using a Baconian, empiricist methodology, researchers saw their job almost exclusively as the collection of data, believing that the best way to understand the over 2,500 languages said to exist on earth was to collect and sort data about them, so that eventually the patterns characterising the grammar of each language would emerge, and that then, interesting differences among different languages, and even groups of languages, would also emerge. Semantics were sidelined so that more focus could be given to a precise classification of languages based on a precise description of the structure of sentences. All languages were seen as composed of a set of meaningful sentences, each composed of a set of words, each of which was in turn composed of phonemes and morphemes. A grammar for each language determined the ways in which words could be correctly combined to form sentences, and how the sentences were to be pronounced.

Chomsky’s UG

Chomsky’s revolutionary argument, begun in Syntactic Structures (1957), and further developed in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965) and Knowledge of Language (1986), was that all human languages shared the same underlying structure – a set of abstract principles which characterise their core grammars – and the job of the linguist was to describe this generative, or universal, grammar, as rigorously as possible. As menmtioned above, Chomsky’s model of language distinguishes between competence and performance; like Saussure, he distinguishes between the description of underlying knowledge, and the use of language. Chomsky refers to the underlying knowledge of language that’s acquired as “I-Language”, which he distinguishes from “E-Language”, the performance data of the sort you get from a corpus of real texts. “I-Language” obeys rules of Universal Grammar, among which are structure dependency; subjacency (which constrains the movement of categories); C-command and government theory (which constrain a number of the subsystems, such as case theory); and binding theory (which constrains the formation of NPs). So,

UG consists of a highly structured and restrictive system of principles with certain open parameters to be fixed by experience.  As these parameters are fixed, a grammar is determined, what we may call a `core grammar’  (Chomsky 1980, cited in Epstein, Flynn and Martohardjono, 1996: 678).

The principles are universal properties of syntax which constrain learners’ grammars, while parameters account for cross-linguistic syntactic variation, and parameter setting leads to the construction of a core grammar where all relevant UG principles are instantiated. Chomsky’s attempts to pin down the essential rules of language require this key distinction between competence and performance, and it’s important to be clear that performance refers to the actual utterances, spoken and written, of language users in their day to day communication. Such data, while doubtless of great interest to those investigating other areas of linguistics, is irrelevant to the development of UG theory, which attempts to describe the essential rules of syntax governing all languages.

Halliday: Language as social semiotic

In stark contrast to Chomsky’s UG approach, which sees language as a purely cognitive phenomenon, and also in contrast to Bloomfield’s focus on structure, Halliday (1973, 1985) proposed a “systemic, functional” view of language which sees language in terms of the social functions it serves. According to Halliday, language is a systematic resource for expressing meaning in context, not the set of all possible grammatical sentences.  Consequently, language should be analysed in terms of the ways language users go about the task of “the realisation of meaning in context”.  As Widdowson says, “the emphasis here is on language not as genetic endowment, but as generic accomplishment” (Widdowson, 1996: 14). Halliday takes a functional, semantic view of language as opposed to the formal, syntactic view of Chomsky and others. He sees the text, rather than the sentence, as the object of language, and he defines its scope by reference to usage rather than grammaticality.

As a consequence of his approach, Halliday explains language as developing according to the changing needs of human communities. The two main functions that language performs are what Halliday calls the “ideational function”, which allows people to deal with the external world, and “the inter-personal function”, which allows people to deal with each other. These two functions can be said to underlie all languages, and to afford a way of describing universal features of language in a systematic way which differs radically from Chomsky’s.  Halliday makes it clear that language can be seen as both abstract knowledge and as human behaviour. Knowledge of language consists of knowing about how the basic components of the grammar are organised in interrelated systems of features representing “the meaning potential of a language”. A language is viewed as a “system of systems”, and the linguist’s task is to specify the choices involved in the process of instantiating this meaning potential in actual ‘texts’ through the resources available in the language. The term ‘choice’ is key, and is used to denote the selection of features not only at the level of individual categories such as definiteness, tense and number, but also at higher levels of text planning such as the grammar of speech functions. “By ‘text’ . . . we understand a continuous process of semantic choice. Text is meaning and meaning is choice” (Halliday, 1978:137).

What exactly does the functionalist view say about language itself?  Functionalists tend to ignore the question, falling back on the claim that language is simply out there in the environment, and, if pushed, pointing to connectionist modelling and emergentist theories as evidence of the sufficiency of their explanation. While some usage-based approaches to language see language as emerging from the environment with no help from innate knowledge, the functionalist approach to text is hardly compatible with Nick Ellis’ view that the basic units of language are ‘constructions’, which, corrrespond closely to Saussure’s signs. They are thus mental constructs: not the link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern. Ellis says that these “constructions” are form-function mappings; they specify “the defining properties of morphological, syntactic, and lexical form, and the semantic, pragmatic, and discourse functions that are associated with them” (Ellis, 2015, p.3). Thus Ellis sees language as knowledge about the underlying structure of these mental constructions.

To return to the main issue, Bialystock has this to say about the functionalist approach:

But what is language, why is it structured as it is, and why are all languages so similar? The functionalist approach treats language as though it were like yogurt: once some exists, it is fairly straightforward to reproduce it, but where did the first yogurt come from? And why does yogurt from different places always come out more or less the same? To make yogurt, one must start with yogurt. There is something essential about its nature. So too with language: once it is in the environment, there are a number of ways one can explain how individual children obtain their own copy, but how did languages develop the predictable regularities they did, especially when the same regularities are observed across highly disparate languages? And why does the path to acquisition always look so similar? The functionalist response is to deny they are dealing with yogurt: the idea of linguistic universals is a fiction and each language is as different from all others as is each child who learns it (Bialystok 2001: 51).

This eloquent defence of formal grammar should not be interpreted as unconditional support: Bialystok not only berates the functionalists for their refusal to accept the idea of linguistic universals; she also admonishes the formalists, whose theories she describes as “equally parochial”.

Hoey’s Lexical Priming

While, for all their enormous differences, Saussure’s Langue & Parole, and Chomsky’s Competence & Performance have in common the view that language knowledge is knowledge about the underlying structure of a complex system, and while structuralists see language knowledge as knowledge of the rules that each language has for constructing well-formed sentences, Halliday’s approach is obviously very different, rejecting the view that knowledge of a language is knowledge of grammar. Hoey’s (2005) Lexical Priming theory goes even further and wants to do without grammar altogether. Hoey (whether wittingly or not) adopts a crude empiricist epistemology, arguing that we should look only at real, attested language behaviour and abandon descriptions of syntax in favour of a model of language based on the word, along with its collocational and colligational properties. In Hoey’s model, collocations and “nestings” (words join with other primed words to form sequences) are linked to contexts and co-texts, and grammar is replaced by a network of chunks of words. There are no rules of grammar; there is no English outside a description of the patterns that can be observed by rumaging around in the raw data collected in corpora that display language performance. Every speaker has his or her own unique set of shifting patterns; there is no right or wrong in language; it makes little sense to talk of something being ungrammatical.


Note: In this quick review I exclude the work of William O’Grady, who grants the existence of innate knowledge.

Emergentists reject the UG account of language, and the nativist assumption that human beings are born with linguistic knowledge and a special language learning mechanism. Emrgentists take the view that “acquisition of language is exemplar based”. (Ellis, 2002: 143), and that “a huge collection of memories of previously experienced utterances” underlies the fluent use of language. Thus, Ellis sees language learning as “the gradual strengthening of associations between co-occurring elements of the language”, and fluent language performance as “the exploitation of this probabilistic knowledge” (Ellis, 2002: 173).

Such a view requires adopting the functionalist assumption that language knowledge is “something that develops in the course of learning how to perform the primary communicative tasks of comprehension and production.” (Seidenberg and MacDonald, 1999: 571) Knowledge of language is viewed as a neural network that maps between forms and meanings; and further levels of linguistic representation, such as syntax and morphology, are said to emerge in the course of learning tasks. But, to return to Bialystok’s remarks above, what precisely is the language knowledge which emerges from these encounters with the environment? Gregg argues that no answer to the question is provided, and that this is not surprising, since the aim of emergentism is to do away with innate, domain-specific representational systems, and show that all that the learner needs is “an ability to do distributional analyses and to remember the products of the analyses” (Gregg, 2003: 55).

What is surprising, as Gregg notes, is that Ellis seems to accept the validity of the linguist’s account of grammatical structure – they judge the success of their model in terms of such structure. And the severe limitations of the models they construct – the connectionist models – are highlighted by Gregg, who goes to the trouble of examining the Ellis and Schmidt model (see Gregg, 2003: 58 – 66) in order to emphasise just how little the model has learned and how much is left unexplained. How can a model of this sort claim to represent natural human languages? The sheer implausibility of the enterprise strikes me as forcefully as it seems to strike Gregg. How can emergentists seriously propose that the complexity of language emerges from simple cognitive processes being exposed to frequently co-occurring items in the environment? How do children know what they know about language? How do we recognise poetic language? Is our knowledge of language well explained by emergentism and connectionist models? No, it is not. I’m wandering into the area of explanations of language learning now, but the point is that emergentists (or at least “empiricist emergentists” as Gregg refers to them) do not give any clear or satisfactory description of what language knowledge consists of.

Components of Language Competence

Hymes (1972) criticised the Chomskian account of linguistic competence as too limited and argued that knowledge of the appropriacy of language use was also important.  Canale and Swain (1980) described communicative competence in terms of three components, and Canale (1983) proposed four components: linguistic, sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic. Bachman (1990) also proposed four components but omitted strategic competence because, he argued, language competence consists of knowledge of and about the language, while strategic competence (the general cognitive skills involved in language use) are better understood as an ability, or capacity, rather than knowledge.

For the moment, we may simply note the kinds of knowledge that are regarded as part of language competence, taken from Bachman and Palmer’s 1996 book.

The  model reflects the growing opinion that Chomskian competence is not a good description of what constitutes knowledge of a language. Slowly but not at all surely, a distinction is being made between knowledge and skills, so that language knowledge is seen to be interacting with the other non-linguistic factors. In particular, strategic competence (a non-linguistic general “ability” that enables an individual to use available resources by regulating online cognitive processes in accomplishing a communicative goal)  is separated from language competence. But this hasn’t, alas, resulted in a clear picture of what constitutes the knowledge aquired in the SLA process. Bachman’s description of language competence measures language use, only indirectly indicating  the kinds of knowledge and skills that are involved. The differences between “formalists” and functionalists, with the added ingredient of emergentism weighing in on the functionalist side, demands closer attention and evaluation.


Teacher trainers need to be clear about their own particular view of language knowledge and of the skills needed to achieve communicative competence. What do they tell their trainees about the subject being taught, and how does their view of language influence their view of language learning and language teaching?  They say very little about the matter and I think they should say more.

Dellar, Walkley, and Selliven are exceptions to the general silence; all three of them talk a lot about their lexical view of the English language because they claim it leads to a completely different approach to ELT. Unfortunately, none of them gives a coherent account of Hoey’s views, or of anybody else’s, come to that. Dellar in particular makes a terrible mess of things by first misinterpreting the works of Lewis, Sinclair and Hoey, and by then throwing his own baffling view of grammar into the muddled mix.

Thornbury flirts with every view mentioned above, but has not, so far given any definitive account of his own view, unless his (2004) Natural Grammar counts, which I hope it doesn’t .

As for the rest of the teacher trainers I mention in my introductory post, and the TD SIGs, I haven’t seen anything published by any of them that indicates an interest in replacing a now discredited structuralist view of language with something fresher, and I haven’t seen any evidence that they pay attention to the matters discussed here as they go about their teacher training.


Link to Gregg’s 2003 article about emergentism: gregg_s_of_emergentism_in_slagj

Bachman, L. (1990) Fundamental Considerations in Language Testing.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bachman, L. and Palmer, A.S. (1996) Language Testing in Practice. Oxford, OUP.

Bialystok, E. (2001) Bilingualism in Development.  Cambridge: CUP.

Bloomfield, L. (1984) Language. University of Chicago Press.

Canale, M. (1983) On some dimensions of language proficiency.  In Oller, J. (ed.): Issues in Language Testing Research.  Rowley, M.A.: Newbury House.

Canale, M. and Swain, M. (1980) Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics 1: 1-47.

Chomsky, N.  1965: Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Chomsky, N. 1975: Reflections on language. New York: Pantheon Books.

Chomsky, N. 1980: Rules and representations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Chomsky, N. 1986: Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin and Use.  New York: Prager.

Cook, V. J. (1993) Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.  Basingstoke, Macmillan.

Ellis, N. (2002) Frequency Effects in Language Processing and Acquisition.  Studies in Second Language Acquisition 24,2, 143 – 187

Ellis, N. (2015) Implicit AND Explicit Language Learning: Their dynamic interface and complexity. In Rebuschat, P. (Ed.). (2015). Implicit and explicit learning of languages, (pp. 3-23). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Epstein, S., Flynn, S., and Martohardjono, G. (1996) Second Language Acquisition: Theoretical and experimental issues in contemporary research.  Behavioural and Brain Sciences.  Vol. 19, 4, 677-758.

Halliday, M. (1973) Explorations in the Functions of Language.  London: Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M. (1985) An Introduction to functional grammar.  London: Edward Arnold.

Hymes, D. (1972) On Communicative Competence. In Pride, J. And Holmes, J. (eds.) Sociolinguistics.  Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Saussure, E. (1966) Course in General Linguistics. McGraw-Hill,

Seidenberg, M.S. and MacDonald, M.C. (1999) A probabilistic constraints approach to language acquisition and processing.  Cognitive Science, 23, 569-588.

Skehan, P. (1995) Analysability, accessibility, and ability for use.  In Cook, G. and Seidlhoffer. B. (eds.): Principles and Practice in Applied Linguistics.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thornbury, S. (2004) Natural Grammar. OUP.

White, L. (1996) Issues of Matuation and Modality in Second Language Acquisition. In Ritchie, W.C. and Bhatia, T.K. (eds.) Handbook of second language acquisition.  San Diego: Academic Press

Widdowson, H. (1996) Linguistics in the Oxford Guide to Language Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

13 thoughts on “Views of the English language

  1. hi Geoff
    thanks for this overview of what Roy Harris has called segregational lingustics; I am quite taken by Harris’s integrational linguistics and although integrational linguistics may seem more of a critique of the various theories you have talked about in this post than something positive that could be applicable, do you have any thoughts (or know any writing) on use of integrational linguisics in language teaching?
    I am developing my own thoughts and will try to blog about it soonish

  2. Hi Mura,

    Thanks for this. I’ve looked at Harris’ well-written work before, and it’s certainly interesting. His blog gives a good summary:

    My main interest, as I think you know, is in theories of SLA, where the “L” bit is so often neglected. Kevin Gregg has been a bit of a lone voice (tho a few nativists like White, and a few others – William O’Grady and Susanne Carroll among them – support him) crying for more attention to a “property theory”, which sets out what is acquired. Here, it’s the rival claims of the formalists and functionalists, now joined by the emergentists, that is, I think, most interesting. I don’t know what Harris might say about this.

    I should add that I don’t expect teacher trainers to get deeply involved in all this, but I do expect them to articulate a clear, coherent view of language knowledge, which most of them fail to do. I also think that teacher training programmes should start by reviewing what the various views of language are and how they might affect teaching practice, before launching into the inevitable question of whether “the present perfect” should be presented before or after “the past simple”.

  3. Re formalists vs functionalists i would guess Harris thought they were different cheeks of the same bottom 😀 similarly for any property theory of language as this would continue the segragational tradition of objectifying language? ;
    Harris has pointed to some affinity of an aspect of Asher’s total physical response to aims of integrational ling; i see similar affinity with Krashen’s i+1 – people understand what’s beyond them using “context, our knowledge of the world, our extra-linguistic information” and in task based learning where accomplishing task is paramount however this is done

  4. Hi Mura,

    I took another look at Harris, and I’m afraid this is not my cup of tea – as you might say. I follow Gregg in thinking that we need a property theory in order to explain SLA. Still, I look forward to reading your thoughts.

  5. P.S. to Mura,

    The teaching implications you mention in 2nd. paragraph look interesting, but it seems a funny way to get at them to me. But I know nothing about Harris’ stuff really.

  6. hi Geoff thought this might be of interest –
    re the What is language (property theory) question and the How is language acquired (transistion theory) question Taylor & Shankar (2003) make the point that the What question determines the How question but the reverse may not be the case i.e. How question may not affect What question.
    theories of language acquisition such as generativist, social interactionist, and cognitivist are different How questions but they have similar What questions – i.e. “what a child acquires in acquiring a language is a grammar, conceived as internally-realized knowledge of a complex system of units (morphemes, words, signs, lexical entries, etc.) and the combinatorial relations between them.”
    in other words “WHAT question is methodologically prior to the HOW question”
    Taylor, T. J., & Shanker, S. Rethinking language acquisition: what the child learns. In Davis, H. G., & Taylor, T. J. (2003). Rethinking linguistics. Routledge

  7. Hi Mura,
    Thanks for this. Those who offer transition theories of SLA – How is the knowledge (whatever it is) acquired? – obviously imply something about that knowledge in terms of the constructs they use. We can see views of language in the generativist, social interactionist, cognitivist, emergentist, … theories. What Gregg, Carroll, O’Grady and others point out is that no theory of SLA can hope to be complete without a property theory component, and that UG is the only property theory that stands up to any kind of examination – even if (as in the case of Carroll & O’Grady) you don’t accept it. I’ll read the Taylor & Shasnker article, but it seems pretty obvious to me that the “WHAT question is methodologically prior to the HOW question” and I’m not sure what the point is.

  8. I think one of the points is that there is a perception that the How is more complicated than the What when the reverse is the case; also later they examine the retroactive nature of child acquisition studies (how later What’s are projected back onto earlier behaviour) and its issues

  9. Hi Mura,

    Thanks for the clarification. I quite agree. Here’s Susanne Carrroll 20 years ago:

    What is input to learning, then? A theory of processing cannot provide the answer. What input to learning might be depends very much on one’s theory of linguistic cognition, and the mechanisms which can operate therein. It might consist of the principles and parameters of UG plus some trigger for parameter resetting (Flynn, 1987; White, 1989); it might consist of information induced by general problem-solving mechanisms (Clahsen and Muysken, 1986; Bley- Vroman, 1990); it might be randomly generated new information created by association (MacWhinney, 1987); it might be formal principles transferred across cognitive systems (O’Grady, 1996); it might be recombinations of features and structures operating in an autonomous cognitive system of the sort defined below (Carroll, to appear). This brings me to the crux of this paper which is that talk of input/intake, information processing and various black-box models does nothing to resolve the essential problem of SLA, which includes defining a theory of linguistic competence which can provide the essential notions as to what representations are and how learning can modify them.

    Carroll, S. (1997) Putting ‘input’ in its proper place. Second Language Research 15,4; pp. 337–388

  10. Hi Geoff,

    Thanks for all the work you do on this blog. Are you familiar with Bill Van Patten’s publication “While we’re on Topic”? It introduces some of these ideas about having a coherent theory of language in a very accessible way for teachers. I found the conversational style a bit grating at times but was impressed by its depth and the clarity of his explanations.

    Also, do you know of any UK or distance-based master’s programmes that actually deal with linguistic theory in a more comprehensive way? Most programmes related to ELT in the UK seem to have a very limited amount of content on theory. My experience doing Delta and my PGCert was there was lots of Chomsky-bashing by people that had a very limited understanding of what Chomsky actually argues.



  11. Hi Jon,

    Thanks for this. Yes, I know BVP’s “While we’re on the topic” and I think there’s lots of great stuff in it. I agree that he explans himself very clearly, and I join you in recommending his work. He’s had a very positive influence on ELT – stressing the weaknesses of coursebook-driven, explicit “L2 instruction” and encouraging teachers to use alternative approaches.

    I’m afraid most distance learning (DL) MA programmes don’t give linguistic theory, or theories of SLA, the attention that I think they deserve. I do my best to highlight these concerns in the programme I work on (Leicester University DL in TESOL & Applied Linguistics), but haven’t managed to change much. I think Lancaster Uni has always been, and remains, the best UK centre of excellence in our field, and their DL TESOL MA looks very good.

    As for Chomsky, well it’s time he was bashed, but the problem is the ignorance of so many – including a raft of well-known and influential teacher trainers – who do the bashing.

  12. Hi there,
    “The severe limitations of connectionist models are highlighted by Gregg, who goes to the trouble of examining the Ellis and Schmidt model (see Gregg, 2003: 58 – 66)”

    I might be blind, but I did not see the reference to Gregg listed. I am interested in reading the text.

    BTW I did the Leicester MA. I picked it at the time because I could do a module on SLA and because it was doable under my circumstance (fulltime job and fulltime dad). I think the program would be better if the TESOL part came at the end, or optional, (or not at all), to give more room for more “interesting” issues, research methods, models of mind/cognitive science, and maybe even the critical view of language teaching.


  13. Hi Thom,

    I’ve added a link to Gregg’s 2003 articles at the beginning of the References section at the end of the post.

    Interesting to hear you did the Leicester Uni MA. I think the TESOL part should be properly integrated with an expanded SLA part!

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