Thursday, January 26, 2006

metaphors for language

This from a review I wrote a while back; the authors were trying to describe Universal Grammar.

The authors borrowed a metaphor (from V. Cook, p. 169) that made me laugh. In this passage, the "universals" and "parameters" of languages that Universal Grammarians are often preoccupied with defining are compared to universals and parameters of driving; a universal, for example, being the expectation that in any given country all drivers will be restricted to driving in one direction on the same side of the road; this being an innate or given part of driving. Parameters, on the other hand, are restrictions within each country that establish which side drivers will use in that country; a parameter may have 'values,' in this case, left or right, which are particular to that country alone, and are changed only with great difficulty.

Though I was stern and critical of the absurdity of this idea, and still am, it got me to thinking, if one does not go around with universal restrictions on where to drive or how to do it, what would be a better analogy for the process of language?

And it struck me, on my way back from the pool, as I prepared to cut across a muddy field (where CESL used to stand), rather than go around, staying on the concrete walkway. This was it: the concept of price. I can cut across this field, and it will be shorter, but at the price of making my feet muddy. This price might be higher for some than others (I have friends who would never do this); it's certainly higher for teachers than students. Yet it's a calculation we make daily. Social & personal factors are involved, yet, the bottom line is that we either use one system to get from point A to point B, or another. And our calculations are based upon our perceptions of price.

Some language explanation as an example may be in order, but it eludes me at the moment.


Leverett, T. (2001). Review of Second Language Acquisition, by S. Gass and L. Selinker, TESL-EJ, vol. 5, no. 2, Sept.


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