From Word to Concept: Cognitive Processing in Second Language Acquisition
The biological nature of humans imposes speech, just as it involves walk and sleep.
But, what are words and what do they do? Where did they come from?
Do they represent the actual objects they stand for, or are they related to concepts? Why does blue stand for the color of the sky and not for the color of grass?
According to the Tower of Babel myth, all people used to speak a single language after the Great Flood.
When they agreed to build a tower tall enough to reach heaven, God punished people by confounding their speech and scattering them all around the world.
That’s only a myth from today’s perspective, but it’s a trigger to many questions:
Would the world be a better place if people spoke a single language?
If that’s a myth, then where should we look for the ultimate origin of human language? Is there direct evidence that leads us to the source?
Science lacks empirical evidence to answer these questions, but that doesn’t prevent us from coming down to a conclusion: languages are beautiful and we love learning them.
They open up new perspectives on different cultures, and we keep being amazed when discovering new words.
Modern Cognitive Study: Fundamental Theories on Words
People can express their thoughts on an unlimited number of topics through language.
Speech is used not only for conveying thoughts and feelings, but for giving orders and asking questions, too. Every language has thousands of words in its vocabulary, but the number of words still has a limit.
Although people use a limited set of speech sounds and words, they can express infinite ideas and sentences through them. Researchers found that infants of 12 months have the needed grammar skills to understand causative sentences. That ability of humans is absolutely remarkable.
According to modern cognitive study, language is consisted of two aspects: substance and form.
Substance is the word, or the sound linked with the concept (meaning); whereas form is consisted of semantics and grammar.
Substance is the raw material, and form is the logics according to which that material is being used in a meaningful way. When you are learning a new language, your first focus is substance: learning the words.
In that aspect, there are two fundamental theories in modern cognitive study:
1. A Word Represents a Concept
Words don’t represent actual objects in real life. If that were the case, all languages would’ve been the same.
People from different countries would have the same words for blue, sky, green, grass… you get the picture.
According to this theory, the word represents the concept, or the substance of the object we have in mind. The word signifies an object.
2. The Relationship between Words and Concepts is Arbitrary
Researchers haven’t found a logical reason why people chose specific combinations of sounds to represent different concepts; they have simply invented words consisted of sounds, which they associated to concepts.
Every society develops its own concepts and links them to certain words. Once the relationship between a word and a concept has been established, the society accepts it as a social fact and maintains it over a long period of time.
The individuals are no longer able to choose any arbitrary words for the concepts they want to convey. That’s how we get different languages.
Find more information about the power of words on college papers blog.
Learning a Second Language: from Theory to Practice
The theories of second-language acquisition are closely related to the word-concept principles described above.
Since meaning is the core of a language, the learner should focus not on the sentence structure, but on the lexical, semantic, grammatical, and pragmatic meaning.
Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar is particularly interesting. Chomsky, the father of modern linguistics, realized that the majority of human languages followed similar grammar patterns and rules, and he believed that was more than a coincidence.
Although there are differences between languages, they share core grammatical principles. The conclusion is astonishing: people are born with a capacity for language, regardless of the environmental influences.
Even small children understand the rules of language, although it would take a lifetime to acquire that knowledge from scratch.
We already have the natural tendency to learn languages. We just need to learn the words that represent the concepts that surround us.
That’s a useful fact that we can use in second-language acquisition.
Concept Mapping – the Key to Success
After all that talk about theory, there is one logical practical approach that follows: people can easily learn foreign languages through concept maps.
The concept map is a visual organization of symbols that represent a concept. It is usually organized in boxes or bubbles in different colors, which help the students memorize the words when they associate them with the visual impression.
The map creates relationships between different concepts. Traditionally, concept maps include directional arrows, labeled concepts, lines suggesting hierarchy, linking words, propositions that define the relationships between concepts, and graphic representations of the concepts.
When people are trying to learn a foreign language, they face serious difficulties because they have already associated the concepts to specific words.
As a result, they keep thinking their native language and trying to memorize new words without making meaningful connections. It’s no wonder why foreign students often need assignment help in the second language.
The underlying idea of using concept maps in language learning is to involve the learners in thinking and sharing meanings about the concepts while using the target language in their interactions.
Concept maps can be produced using paper and pen, but today language learners can benefit from digital tools that boost the visual element of concept mapping:
Research shows that concept maps are a useful learning strategy for language learners.
The best thing about this technique is the fact that it is fun. People of all ages enjoy developing their own maps and creating links between the words they learn and the concepts they represent.
If you’re a language teacher or a learner, you’ll only benefit from concept mapping.
Pick your tool and start creating maps today!