Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An Introduction to Language by Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman, Peter Collins, and David Blair [Third Edition]



(Picture not the same edition I read, but closest I could find.)


Why I Read This Book
          This book is part of my on-going project to try to read 10 pages a day of something related to professional development.
            More specifically, like many TESOL teachers I did my undergraduate degree in a field unrelated to linguistics (secondary history education, in my case) and have since been trying to move sideways into second language learning studies based on my years of English teaching.  Every so often, when I get bogged down or confused by books on second language learning (as I confessed happened occasionally to me here  and here), I wonder if this is because I lack a firm base in basic linguistic knowledge.
            On the other hand, over the years I have managed to pick up a few things about linguistics, and the problem with choosing a textbook for professional development is that it’s a little bit difficult to hit that sweet spot that’s not yet “too advanced” but also not all “stuff I already knew.”  This book looked like it might border on the latter, but I decided some review would do me no harm, and selected this book as the next project on my reading list.

About the Book
          This book is designed as a general introduction to linguistics. Although in the preface the authors specify a wide-ranging intended audience for the book, one gets the impression it’s mainly intended as introduction for undergraduate students. 
            The original book was written by Fromkin and Rodman, but the book I got my hands on is the Australian version adapted by David Blair and Peter Collins.
            Not having read the original version, I can’t state with 100% confidence how they compare, but I imagine the basic information in the text is the same and perhaps just the examples are different.  (My own dialect is American English, but having done my Master’s of Applied Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, I’m somewhat used to linguistics being discussed in terms of the Australian dialect.)

The Review
          This is really everything you would want from an introductory textbook—well written, easy to understand, interesting, thorough, and basically just a pleasure to read.

            The book is 515 pages long, and covers many different aspects of linguistics: word meanings, sentence structure, phonology, phonetics language history, written language, some aspects of sociolinguistics, Chomsky's theories on universal grammar, and more.
            Parts of this book are more demanding than others.  I was able to breeze quite easily through the discussions of language in society, but the more technical parts of the book like syntax, phonetics, and phonology required a lot of concentration to fully absorb.  (As someone who has completed a graduate level class on phonetics and phonology, I admit this with some embarrassment, but I still struggle a bit with all the technical language of phonology.)
            Most of the book was stuff I had learned before at some point, so in that since the book was mostly review for me.  But, since I had partially or completely forgotten much of what I had once learned, it was necessary review.
           
            My only major complaint—I wish the answers to the exercises at the end of each chapter had been included in the book so I could have checked myself as I did them. 

Other Notes:
* If I could do my life over again, I would have read this book before starting my degree in Applied Linguistics.  Although most of the concepts in this book were covered in my degree course, a thorough knowledge of this book would have given me a running start.

* That being said, a fair amount of the content in this book was covered in The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, which I did actually read before starting my degree.

* Both this book and Pinker illustrate a number of their points about language by frequent reference to the works of Lewis Carroll.  (I’ve already read Alice’s Adventures  in Wonderland, but I’m now thinking I should probably one day continue on to Through the Looking Glass.)

* Nim Chimpsky is covered on pages 442-443, and I found this page and a half more informative about the linguistic significance of the experiment than the 90 minute documentary Project Nim. 
            (On the other hand though, the documentary Project Nim is interesting for different reasons.  This book says that Nim Chimpsky “was taught ASL [American Sign Language] by an experienced teacher” and “Under carefully controlled experimental conditions that included thorough record keeping” (p. 442).  From the documentary Project Nim, one gets the sense that this experiment was not as well organized or documented as it could have been, and the expertise of Nim’s trainers varied.)

Link of the Day
What is language and why does it matter? by Noam Chomsky (2013)
And also, from Cracked.com: 21 Last Texts Recovered From Famous Moments in History
(A waste of time, but good fun for us history nerds.)

2 comments:

angrysoba said...

Every so often, when I get bogged down or confused by books on second language learning (as I confessed happened occasionally to me here and here), I wonder if this is because I lack a firm base in basic linguistic knowledge.
On the other hand, over the years I have managed to pick up a few things about linguistics, and the problem with choosing a textbook for professional development is that it’s a little bit difficult to hit that sweet spot that’s not yet “too advanced” but also not all “stuff I already knew.”


I've thought similar things about a lot of the textbooks which I have read. I've sometimes picked up introductory texts and ploughed through the bits I already knew only to get to some interesting stuff which I had come across before but which is so much better explained.

I think there may be a few reasons why some of the books can be confusing though and those are that:

a) sometimes I think the writers themselves have misunderstood the theories they are writing about.

and

b) I think that nobody really knows the essence of learning a second language. That is, I don't even know if there really is any really good method.

A lot of suggested ideas seem similar to people's formulas for living a long time. Some people will put it down to exercise, some people will say putting honey in their tea helped them, some people will say being cheerful and laughing helps whereas it could have been all of those things, none of those things or simply genes.

As for phonology, I myself also find that difficult to remember. I don't tend to find it particularly useful in class, however.

Maybe one thing that I have started doing, that has changed since I've been doing my course is to try to use more language above the level of the sentence. So, I might use more longer texts with clozes that they may have to refer back a few sentences to get the answer. I'm not sure if that will be successful, but I am trying to encourage my students to make more guesses and worry less about specific word forms.

Joel said...

Thanks for the comment. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who struggles through these books sometimes.
Actually, to contradict myself somewhat, I'm starting to believe it's not a bad thing to read through these books that are mostly stuff I already knew. As I'm studying for the DELTA exam, I'm realizing that a lot of these terms and concepts that I thought I knew, I actually don't know well enough to give a cold definition of on an exam paper--I just have a vague feeling of familiarity with them, but it's not 100% committed to memory. Reading and re-reading books on the basics will probably help me to really cement my knowledge, I think. So perhaps on second thought I shouldn't be worried about how much of a book is new material for me.