definitions of language

What is LANGUAGE? Cracking the code with 5 definitions of language that matter according to research in linguistics

communication, definition, identity, language, meaning, system, thought

Unearth the essence of LANGUAGE through 5 definitions of language that every language educator must know. So, ‘what is LANGUAGE’? Delve deeper in this enlightening read.

Table of Contents

Introduction: What is Language?

If Earth should be graced by intelligent aliens from another planet, one thing they might observe as a stark difference between humans and other creatures, would be the ability to communicate using language. The aliens may wonder on the amazing phenomena surrounding human language and the way we use it , and how language acquisition occurs in humans. This is somewhat the scenario painted by Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch (2022) at the start of their article “The faculty of Language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?”.

Central to the existential purpose of this website is about language and how we can better teach or learn it. Of course, for anyone reading this article, not all “languages” would be of particular interest, other than the ones you are using/teaching and the ones you are interested to learn. And as you use your language(s) or learn additional one(s), the construct of language is so taken for granted that we rarely sit back to reflect on the question asked by the renowned applied linguist and language educator, Professor David Nunan (2007), “What is this thing called Language?

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Different Definitions of LANGUAGE

So, what is “LANGUAGE”? Depending on the context this is asked, the answers to this question can be divergent, and linguists do not have a universal definition that is applicable for use in any situation. Yet, for language education, an understanding of different definitions of language can be important, as it reflects the different conceptualisations of the object which we are highly interested in and concerned about. These different conceptualisations enable us to have deeper understanding into the complexity of language, which have implications on our practices. It would not be an overstatement to claim that many canonical approaches to language teaching are functions of the specific definitions they adopt.

For a start, let us take a look at the various definitions by applied linguists:

  • “the faculty of articulating words” (Saussure, 1916)
  • “Language is a purely human and noninstinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions, and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols” (Sapir, 1921)
  • “language as genetic inheritance, a mathematical system, a social fact, the expression of individual identity, the expression of cultural identity, the outcome of dialogic interaction, a social semiotic, the intuitions of native speakers, the sum of attested data, a collection of memorised chunks, a rule-governed discrete combinatory system, or electrical activation in a distributed network” (Cook & Seidlhofer, 1995)
  • “In informal usage, a language is understood as a culturally specific communication system”; “In the varieties of modern linguistics that concern us here, the term “language” is used quite differently to refer to an internal component of the mind/brain” (Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch, 2002)
  • “A language is a system of meaning – a semiotic system.” (Halliday, 2003: 2)
  • “language as a finite system of elements and principles that make it possible for speakers to construct sentences to do particular communicative jobs” (Fasold & Connor-Linton, 2006)
  • “Language as a tool for communication” (Nunan, 2007)
  • “Language is foremost a means of communication, and communication almost always takes place within some sort of social context”; “language is a rule-based system of signs” (Amberg & Vause, 2009: 2)
  • “a communication system composed of arbitrary elements which possess an agreed-upon significance within a community. These elements are connected in rule-governed ways” (Edwards, 2009: 53)
  • “Unpacking the definition ‘language as a rule-governed discrete combinatory system’, we see that language is a system, a system comprised of discrete segments: phonemes, lexemes, morphemes.”; “Language as social fact” (Larsen-Freeman, 2011)
  • “language, a system of conventional spoken, manual (signed), or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves.” (Robins and Crystal, 2021)

While we note that the various definitions branch out into different perspectives, we could also observe how some common themes converge, typically by the different main functions of language: language is a tool of communication, language is a complex rule-governed system of discrete segments, language is a meaning-making entity, language is an expression of identity and language is a representation of thought. A side note as we read on though: these definitions are not restricted to any single language and is also relevant to sign language.

1. Language is a tool and system of communication

a group of ladies talking
Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash / A group of ladies having a conversation

Of the various conceptualisations, this is probably the most ubiquitous in language education. It is most in-sync with what people do every day, such as composing text messages in chatgroups, making transactions in grocery stores and socialising with family and friends. We do it naturally and so often that we take it for granted, to the extent that we forget its function as a “tool of communication”, until perhaps we lose the ability temporarily. Without language, we would then have to rely on other forms of communication (e.g. gestures, expressions, actions). Even so, we may also label those alternative means as “body language”, to highlight its substitute for “language” as a system of communication which consists of representations akin to animal communication. Notwithstanding the availability of these substitutes, we still rely highly upon language (i.e. human speech or writing) to communicate.

How does language function as a tool of communication? It is achieved through “encoding and externalising our thoughts” (Evans, 2014). Thoughts are represented by linguistic symbols, or “signs” as coined by Saussure (1916). The linguistic symbols are then articulated and presented from one to others through speaking or writing; and received through listening or reading. The symbols are then decoded and interpreted. This illustrates one direction of the flow of thoughts where language is transmitted in a social interaction; and it can be reversed when the receiving person assumes the role of the producing person, in the case of replying the person who spoke earlier.

For communication to actually work, the linguistic symbols are to be shared by the community (termed as “speech community”) and used by the people where communication takes place. People within the community (e.g. people of a particular country, village, social group) are expected to make the same associations between forms and meanings of the symbols. For example, if I point to some creature and say “cat”, you would have to recognise that the sound of “cat” is mapped onto the entity “cat” to understand what I want to say. If it happens that you do not know English, or that “cat” relates to something else in your representation, then you would not be able to distinguish what I am referring to. In other words, people interacting with each other need to share one language for effective communication to happen.

2. Language is a complex rule-governed system of discrete linguistic segments

grammar
Photo from Adobe Stock / Grammar – the concept that comes to mind when we talk about language as a system of sub-components

This definition relates most to linguists, who are essentially language scientists seeking to discover the patterns and rules governing how different elements of language combine and manifest in actual usage (e.g. the system of grammar), just like understanding how chemical elements in a Periodic Table interact and form bonds to become new substances.

What are the “discrete segments” of language? It can refer to linguistic units such as lexemes, phonemes, morphemes, words, phrases, clauses and sentences, etc. These segments then combine with one another based on certain rules to become larger units to be used in actual contexts. For most of us, the best way to understand this could be a word as a basic unit (e.g. a specific verb or noun), a phrase as a set of words combined, and a sentence as further combination of words and phrases to form an even larger unit. Do note that for linguists, the smallest elemental form of language (e.g. irreducible linguistic unit) is not at the word level.

Why are there rules that govern how discrete segments come together? And how do these rules work? To answer the first question, imagine a world without traffic rules. Vehicles can go and stop when and where drivers want; and people can cross roads wherever and whenever they wish to do so – one can hardly be surprised at the numerous accidents that would happen on the roads, where chaos may be an understatement of the consequent phenomenon. Similarly, a language without rules where words and sentences can join without a governing grammatical structure would prevent mutual comprehension and not be able to fulfil the function of communication. Humans can produce an infinite number of sentences to express different meanings but cannot be understood without specific systems if all individuals assert different sets of idiosyncrasies on what they want to receive and produce.

However, unlike teachers who can be empowered to make and enforce rules in a classroom, language rules are not usually enforced by authority figures. In typical situations, language rules are co-constructed socially through actual practices, and not explicitly delineated in any document, unlike our constitutional laws or organisational regulations. Members of the speech community can follow the rules without even knowing about them. One major mission of linguists, especially those working on theoretical linguistics, is to discover and codify these hidden rules and seek to understand the obscure patterns of those rules  (e.g. syntax, semantics, rules of pronunciation through phonetics and phonology).

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3. Language is a meaning-making entity

dictionary
Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash / two pages of a specialised dictionary – a collection of words and their meanings within a language

We have understood earlier that language can be conceived as a tool for communication, and as “a system of discrete segments” with combinatory power to become larger units for use. The third definition we are discussing now bridges the two earlier definitions. A discrete linguistic unit may not project much about meaning in its sole use, such as a word can convey little beyond its immediate meaning(s). However, when words combined to form larger units to become phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc and become discourse units, the potential to convey larger and complex meanings expands. This makes language possible for communication for a larger range of purposes in a wider variety of contexts according to the needs of its users.

Semiotics is a field dedicated to the study of signs and how signs are used to create and convey meanings. Language is considered a semiotic system, among other systems such as visual, gestural and spatial systems. Among numerous semiotic systems, language is arguably the most powerful one, endowed with the inexplicable amounts of possibilities that demonstrate and enrich our representation of the world.

The meaning-making power of language does not just lie in the sum of the simple combination of discrete linguistic units, such as the meaning of a sentence is not simply just the sum of the meaning of words in the sentence. At the semantic level, a certain set of possible meanings are conveyed, such as the sentence “I am a student” is possibly interpreted as the declaration of the speaker on his/her identification as a student without other contextual information. However, given further contexts, such as this speaker is using this remark to his/her parents as a response to the demand that he/she should actively look for employment, or that this speaker is making this declaration right before a death sentence, a whole new set of possible meanings surfaced. If we were to take this further, the use of language often takes information from one or more semiotic systems to produce different social information embedded within complicated sets of discourses (e.g. posters or movies which combines language and visuals).

4. Language is an expression of identity

hand splashed with paint
Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash / Using different textures and colours to express personal values and beliefs – is language another medium of art for identity performance?

This is one definition that is usually not taken to be the main overarching definition. Yet the link between language and identity is so inextricable that the subject of identity usually becomes a subset of the definition. As Edwards (2009) puts forward, the “essence of identity is similarity”, which symbolises some level of connectedness between one individual or group to a larger community across time and/or space. It provides assurance in association with an in-group membership (e.g. you are one of us), though it may also induce “othering” effects through exclusion of out-group members (e.g. we are X and that person is a Y).

Mesthrie & Tabouret-Keller (2001) illustrates a simple typology of identities: regional identity, social identity, ethnic identity, gendered identity and national identity. We can easily offer more from our own brainstorming: generational identity, clan identity, professional identity, etc. Does language play a role in reflecting every type of identity?

“a person may be ‘a teacher’, ‘a golfer’, ‘a Newcastle football supporter’, ‘a Berliner’, ‘a German’, ‘a European’ etc, depending on how many groups they identify with, and they will tend to speak in different ways according to which identity is dominant in a certain situation, at school, in the family, in a conference, when travelling in Asia, etc.”

Byram, 2006 (Languages and Identities)

We may have observed from our personal experience that different groups of people that speak the same language (e.g. British using English in UK, Japanese speaking Japanese in Japan) can also speak with commonalities that are only used and understood by the in-group members but inaccessible to others, thus forming language varieties. We may also make casual comments, sometimes even condescending, about how others speak: “that dude speaks like a professional”, “you sound like a long-time gamer”, “that is a sure boomer” even when all are “english speakers” using english words. No one given language may be spared from such associations. Language and the way it is used can be associated with some social characteristic of the people, and is thus an effective index to the speakers’ identities.

While it might be good to note that much of identity performance may be subconscious, identity expressed through language can also be a conscious choice, especially in multilingual societies. At the very least, speakers can assert their identities by embracing different patterns of language choice, especially when confronted with multiple options stemming from more than one language. Acknowledging the richness of linguistic variation empowers individuals to connect with their various identities, breaking barriers and fostering a deeper understanding among different cultures.

5. Language is a representation of thought

thought, thinking
Photo by Adobe Stock / An abstract representation of how thought processes interact in social situations

Of all the definitions of language, this is perhaps the most distant one from how majority of people defined language. It is also a contentious one which can invite fierce debates among linguists. As highlighted by Sapir (1916), “Language and our thought-grooves are inextricably related, are, in a sense, one and the same”.

“Language and our thought-grooves are inextricably related, are, in a sense, one and the same.”

Sapir, 1916 (Language: An Introduction to the study of Speech)

To clarify, the debates on language and thought are not centred on whether language can be an embodiment of thought, but more of whether language equates thought. It is not the intent of this article to argue on this issue, though linguists such as Napoli and Lee-Schoenfeld (2010) argued extensively in their book “Language Matters: A Guide to Everyday Questions about Language” on this question.

Nevertheless, while language and thought can be arguably independent of one another, and that it would be an overstatement to assert that language can represent thought completely, most of us would not disagree that a holistic description of language must include its potential to represent thought, or at least facilitate the processes of thought.

Thought is usually conceived as an idea or concept that occurs in the mind in the abstract realm, and the physical manifestations of thought can be realised through different semiotic systems. As mentioned earlier, language is arguably the most powerful semiotic system and its capacity to represent thought is thus also arguably the strongest.

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Conclusion: Representing LANGUAGE for our learners

In this article, we have journeyed through 5 different definitions of language. They represent the meaning of language for us and our learners. On one hand, they influence the way we learn language. On the other hand, they also provide different perspectives on the nature of language and its relevance to us as humans, and continue to drive us in presenting the different aspects of language to our learners.

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References

Amberg, J.S., & Vause, D.J.  (2009). American English: History, Structure, and Usage. New York USA: Cambridge University Press.

Byram, M.  (2006). Languages and Identities.

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