Who cares about (psycho)linguistics? An introduction

Jagoda Ratajczak, kategoria: Some linguistics...

What you’re going to read in this section are neither typical scientific analyses nor their imitations: these are writings on language which is here analysed and discussed from the point of view of a psycholinguistics fan, interested in the backstage of language acquisition/ processing and the relationship between language and mind. Why in English? This is the language which I have always used when writing about linguistics, the area described mainly in English by not necessarily English scholars. Writing in English then, is not so much a student habit as a prerequisite to become a part of the linguistic community. Here is the introduction-some explanation, some background, some insight and hopefully, an incentive to read and get familiar with the outrageously underrated, yet incredibly thought-provoking area of linguistics- psycholinguistics.

Who cares about linguistics? Hardly anyone, although care they should. From the point of view of a language learner with a fairly utilitarian attitude towards language itself, delving into linguistics is as practical as disassembling a car engine in order to learn how to drive.  We would survive without linguistics-but you can either just survive or live your life with full awareness of what you do and why you do it. To me, linguistics, or to be more precise, psycholinguistics, goes far beyond theoretical writings and art for art’s sake created by and for those who have too much free time.  As I found out after many years of hard work and pushing my way through my fossilised, native language-based mentality onto the new, bilingual perception of things, linguistics asks and sometimes answers the very same questions which every aware and passionate language learner simply has to ask him or herself on the very same way towards bilingualism. Not all of those questions have been or will be answered- after all, language is an individual experience and each of those experiences may create a new question, new doubt and ultimately, a unique approach towards using and understanding the language itself. That’s why each and everyone’s experience, idea, suggestion and observation MAY be an additional component in the pot called language studies. Hardly ever are any answers clear-cut, which may serve as an argument for the so called hardcore-scientists considering linguistics a faux science that creates more questions than answers; to me, though, linguistics is food for thought rather than a tool which puts reality in order. Linguistics did establish certain rules and patterns which have to be acknowledged in any discussion (just like it happens in physics or maths), but it never defies new variables …it welcomes them.

As  a very engaged (or obsessive, we might say) English learner, I was doomed to develop the famous metalinguistic awareness as soon as I started to think at all. In my case, learning has always been accompanied by the whats and whys and hows  of the very process. Why do I choose to resort to dictionary definitions when learning a new word? Why do native speakers of English find some of my sentences weird even if they are grammatically correct and fully comprehensible? Why do we find the words from our native language more vulgar or funny while the words in our second language seem more „neutral”?  Needless to say, my current interest in specific linguistic phenomena and in the cognitive aspect of language use, has been greatly shaped by my own experiences. What has fascinated or puzzled me as a kid ( still unaware of the very existence of „linguistics”) is now particularly interesting to me. Now I feel that I have a chance to answer my own questions asked many years before.

I grew up in a monolingual family. Judging by what some language acquisition pundits have to say about the importance of the age of onset,  I was first exposed to English relatively late- at the age of 6 or 7.  Nobody in my family has ever spoken English. In fact, I was raised in a family which celebrated their monolingualism, that is, never exhibited an apparent need to explore other linguistic territories. More importantly, they found an incessant pleasure in reading in Polish and oh boy, were those not just some morning newspapers. My family house was literally swamped with the laborious classics of the Polish literature which had an enormous impact on my opinion on what the Polish language was all about. As a kid with a visible penchant for the so called linguistic activities (writing, storytelling, story-creating, poem reciting) I was practically trained for the Polish -to-the-core speaker and grew up with the idea that being convincing in the use of one’s language means being as elaborate and flamboyant as it has been magnificently displayed in the Polish literature or at least in the speech of the so called „clever people”.  After all, flamboyance and elaborateness are the „flagship” of the Polish linguistic and literary tradition that should be acknowledged by anybody who dares call  himself A TRULY PROFICIENT SPEAKER OF POLISH, let alone a writer/ a journalist/ whoever who adopts language as their main craft.

From the point of view of a psycholinguist, I am an ideal subject to take part in a study on the late bilingualism altogether with a heavy embedding in one’s L1. In fact, I was embedded in my L1 (Polish) so heavily that it remained my most powerful point of reference for a very long time, unharmed by the L2 (English). My English imitated my Polish, morphed into the same syntactically complicated structures and fancy expressions in the name of what I believed to be an exhibition of language proficiency. Instead of creating a separate language organism called English, I created a hybrid, a creature with multiple limbs but a Polish mind. It wasn’t until years later that I  found out that was the natural stage in the formation of a mental lexicon- a dynamic structure, the development of which is marked by continuous transitions. This observation was one of the greatest epiphanies experienced on my way to figure out the mechanics behind my own language assumptions and habits.  As a student of English, I realised that language studying makes you self- aware, it makes you understand your own learning process and your choices. Unless you feel pretty comfortable with your imperfections, knowing what language acquisition and processing is all about, helps you (as it did in my case)… forgive yourself when you see that your learning process doesn’t go exactly as you wish and when it results in different things on different stages…the difference often being a deviation from the main, ambitious goal.

In this section of the blog I am going to discuss linguistic ideas which were revealing to me and which inspired me, both as a language user and a language fan. Here you won’t read any masturbatory essays on my personal linguistic hypotheses and theories, but a reflection on the ideas, theories and research carried out by some distinguished linguists, enhanced with my own comments, observations and research proposals born in the process of writing my MA thesis, as well as designing my Ph.D. project. I am not a know-it-all linguistics maniac- the core of my interest is psycholinguistics and this is the area which is going to be delved into. The way language is processed by our minds, the way it is acquired and how our ideas about the world are manifested by language- it’s not some all-but-useful theoretical stuff to analyse when insomnia strikes, but an obvious part of everyday life, certainly worth investigating and discussing.

The texts which are going to be published in this section are everything but a mass-popularity guarantee. To think they’re going to fascinate the masses, would be to go far beyond my idealism, straight to naivety. Reading about language and analysing it, just as reading and analysing anything, certainly requires more effort than playing Mafia Wars. Still, let us not be deluded by the impression that some university pundits are trying to make- the impression of linguistics or any other branch of science being secret knowledge, inaccessible to mere folk, a golden badge to parade or some entitlement to look down upon the „non-enlightened”. Knowledge is nobody’s privilege or property and certainly no excuse for a diva syndrome.

Benjamin Whorf, a man behind the theory of language relativism and a linguist who will be certainly reappearing in my texts, replaced „scientific” self-importance with a willingness to share his ideas with the so called „common people” and is now considered one of the greatest linguists of all time. Isn’t it a subtle suggestion that scientific isolation- be it literal or dressed up as pure conceit- works in nobody’s favour? Certain topics will never become the highlights of teatime conversations. They don’t need to. Appearing in ANY conversation and then in ANYBODY’s head is enough of a success for linguistics. If something is not thought about, it does not exist. May thinking about linguistics make this thing itself, even if not obvious, then at least alive.

2 Komentarze/y dla “Who cares about (psycho)linguistics? An introduction”

  1. Perun napisł/a

    I must say that You got me there with this „prerequisite” word :)

  2. Jagoda Ratajczak napisł/a

    Glad you liked it;) That’s the beauty of English- one word conveys everything you would have to describe elaborately in Polish;) but let’s face it, „Prerequisite” is no longer special once you read some psycholinguistic stuff;)

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