Language Philosophy and Language Teaching
by Mark Lowe
The lectures in which Wittgenstein first presented his new ideas became legendary. A few disciples would gather in his rooms in Trinity College, sitting on deck chairs, and would then take part in agonised Socratic debate. Wittgenstein would pose a problem, and invite comments. These comments would be subjected to penetrating analysis – often interrupted by long periods of silence while Wittgenstein thought. Nothing was published at the time, but lecture notes were circulated to the elect. They have all been published since, and the editors include many outstanding philosophers and other leading thinkers of the second half of the 20 th century, such as Elizabeth Anscombe, Norman Malcolm and G.H. von Wright (and my old Headmaster, Sir Desmond Lee, classical scholar, philosopher and educationalist). The fullest exposition of these new ideas is contained in Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously in 1953. The new philosophy that emerged from these sessions amounted to the most radical revolution on philosophy since Kant. Much of the new philosophy concerns language, and is of central importance to those professionally involved with language.
Two of Wittgenstein’s innovations stand out as having particular relevance to language teaching: (1) a new philosophy of language in which meaning is interpreted as ‘use’, rather than conformity to an abstract system (as in the Tractatus) and (2) a new conception of philosophy as a means of disentangling conceptual confusions caused by language muddles. Let us look at these innovations in more detail.
(1) The repudiation of his earlier concept of philosophical analysis. In the old system, language was conceived as a system founded on a calculus of strict rules. The propositions generated by these rules were thought to reveal (Wittgenstein) or to describe (Russell) the most general features of reality. The task of philosophy was to classify these propositions through analysis, thus laying bare the logical structure of the world. This is the view that Wittgenstein repudiated. In his new philosophy of language, the meaning of a word is its use, not what it denotes. Language not only describes things: it also does things. Language is a tool box which enables us to do things: it is not just a device for describing things. Language can also be interpreted, in a favourite analogy of Wittgenstein’s, as a collection of games. Games have rules. We do not follow the rules of chess when playing draughts, or soccer when playing cricket or rugby. To play language games, we need to know and follow the appropriate rules. These rules stem from life, and the use of language is inter-woven with the life of language-users. We master a language when we are closely involved with the life that underpins that language. Language training presupposes shared realities and shared ways of behaving within a language community.
Wittgenstein wrote: ‘if a lion could speak, we would not understand him’: not because his growls are unclear, but because his whole world is so different from ours that we cannot understand it. Russell made a similar point when he said: “if I could teach my dog to speak, he would never learn to say: ‘my father was poor but honest’ Dogs don’t think this way – they have no conception of honesty. Similar reasoning can perhaps sort out today’s muddled thinking about chimpanzee ‘language’ – to what extent do they ‘really’ understand human language? Wittgenstein’s new ideas, originally developed in the 1930s, later played a crucial part in the evolution of communicative language teaching and its theoretical support in the 1960s and 1970s.
(2). A new view of the purpose of philosophy. The purpose of philosophy is no longer to present sublime visions of ultimate truth and goodness, as in the work of Plato or Spinoza. It is simply to clarify our thinking. It is a handmaiden of understanding, rather than a produce of new truths. For Wittgenstein, many so-called philosophical problems are the result of language muddles. Problems like the relation of mind and body, the paradoxes of free will and determinism, and the nature of the soul – all these problems can all be resolved by analyzing how confusions in language cause confusions in our minds. Confusion usually arises when we try to use language that is appropriate for one kind of situation in a different situation for which it is not adapted. Once we see the confusions, all becomes clear. We have, to use Wittgenstein’s vivid image, let the fly out of the bottle.
Wittgenstein’s philosophy has much to offer language teaching. If language is a tool box for doing things, we should focus on helping our student to use the tools effectively, with lots of practice at doing things with words. If language is like a collection of games, we should teach our students to score linguistic goals and hit language centuries and win language chess games and generally get the ball over the language tennis net: we should give our students plenty of practice at playing these language games. (No-one ever learned to kick goals or score centuries or discuss hypotheses without practice).
And if language can sort out conceptual problems, let us apply philosophical analysis to unresolved issues in our field. Do we acquire language or do we learn language? What real processes, if any, do these words stand for? What, if any, is the relation between the two processes? Wittgenstein believed that the right procedure, when confronted with a puzzle like this, is to examine the ‘problem’ language as it is used in ordinary situations. Ordinary language reflects centuries of experience and has survived, in a Darwinian manner, a great deal of criticism and tough use – it has proved its fitness. Ordinary language is usually, Wittgenstein thought, sensible and true to reality. So how is the word acquisition used in ordinary language? In ordinary language there is usually a sense of getting something for nothing – something a bit disreputable - about acquiring things. ‘Have you heard? George has just acquired a nice new young wife…. The old devil..’ The term does not comfortably fit the process of mastering a language, and distorts our understanding of that process, causing intellectual cramp. Wittgenstein would surely have agreed with the great linguist Michael Halliday, who advises us to avoid the loaded terms acquisition and learning, and to use the neutral term mastery instead.
What about conscious and unconscious learning? The debate rests on confusions in the use of these words, which lead to muddles in our understanding of what happens when we learn things, and a confused theory of how the mind actually works. The same is true of innate versus learned grammar, and deep and surface structures. In Wittgenstein’s philosophy, the troublesome words are analysed until the presuppositions underlying the words are exposed and sorted out, thus revealing the truth. His philosophy also examines scientifically what really happens, and not what the distorting language leads us to think happens. In Wittgenstein’s philosophy, we discover the truth, we are not bewitched by beguiling words, and we avoid intellectual cramp. This kind of philosophy is as relevant to language learning theory and practice as it is to every other academic discipline.
Wittgenstein first formulated these ideas. They were later developed by Austin, Grice and Searle, among many others. Let us look now at the philosophy of J.L Austin.
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