This course explores popular myths about language and languages weaved together and mutually reinforced by both linguists and laymen – myths concerning the biological/cognitive/psychological nature of language (the postulation of a language faculty, various accounts of universal language, assumptions about language acquisition), as well as myths taking root in our innumerable attempts at understanding and generalizing our differing, everchanging and sometimes irreconcilable linguistic behaviour (a search for an ultimate answer as to the language-thought relationship, our assignment of different accents/ ‘lects’ to different communities/individuals, the proliferation of different terms and concepts to comprehend our multilingual reality). A more foundational myth undergirding all the abovementioned myths, however, is a myth about what language and languages really are, and what forms of communication actually operate in language. By going from the more conspicuous myths to the underlying myth about language and languages, the course prompts students – bearing a double consciousness as both linguists and laymen themselves – to contemplate how they should go about debunking the myths (through acquiring empirical evidence and doing sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic analyses, or reflecting on their lay linguistic experience?). By the end of the course, students will have developed an awareness of our deep-rooted, mythical thinking about language(s) and of the values and functions (sociocultural, political, ideological, personal) of upholding it and demythologizing it.
This course is divided into three modules, each encompassing certain topics, as listed below:
(1) Language in unity
Where is language? Is there a common location for it in our brain? (Is the Modularity Hypothesis true?)
Do we all share some general features of language? (Is Universal Grammar real?)
How do we all come to ‘have language’? Does it have to do with genetic factors, cognitive factors, socioeconomic factors, sociocultural factors, etc.? (Is language a matter of nature or nurture? Is the Critical Period Hypothesis true? What factors determine this period?)
(2) Language in diversity
Does the language we speak determine the way we think? (Is Linguistic Relativism/Linguistic Determinism real?)
In what ways do we speak/write the same language differently? Is there a general, non-dialectal, non-accented English (e.g., Received Pronunciation, General American English)? Do we language differently according to our age, our gender, our social circles (e.g., netspeak, ‘lad’, women’s language)? Or do we have our own idiolects? If that is the case, how do we communicate? (Are different ‘lects’, accents, etc., our linguistic reality/realities?)
How do we comprehend our reality of having/hearing/coexisting with multiple languages? (How is bilingualism/multilingualism/‘translingualism’ best understood)? How do we communicate in this reality? (Do concepts like ‘code-mixing’, ‘translanguaging’, ‘polylanguaging’ explain what we do?)
(3) What even is language/are languages?
What are the differences between language and languages? Do we have language/languages? What are the consequences of understanding language in terms of languages?
How do our concepts of writing and speaking make up our concepts of language/languages?
How do we communicate ‘in language/languages’?
- To introduce students to the variegated myths about language(s) sponsored by both lay and non-lay linguistic practices.
- To create an awareness of how entrenched our mythical thinking about language(s) is in our daily lives and what values/purposes/functions it serves in our communication.
- To encourage students to critically reflect on the practicality, the immanence and the prolonged impact of perpetuating the language myth/language myths as well as calling it/them into question.
By the end of the course, students are expected to:
- have a basic understanding of the various myths about language(s) and of how they came about and remain in our lay/non-lay linguistic practices.
- be critically aware of the nature of language/languages.
- be informed of the different attempts at debunking the language myth/language myths (by lay and non-lay speakers alike) and have developed their own ways of evaluating these attempts.
- be able to pinpoint and reflect on the diverse values/purposes/functions/programmes of activities fostered, enabled or catalysed by the perpetuation of the language myth/language myths and the disenchantment with the myth(s).
Weekly sessions will consist of a combination of lectures, interactive activities, and group discussion.
Assessment is by 100% coursework, consisting of:
- Participation (10%)
- Quizzes (30%)
- Presentation (20%)
- Term essay (40%)
Weekly digital readings will be uploaded to the course Moodle page and students are expected to find additional materials via the HKU Library digital databases.