What is language?

William Shakespeare, chief figure of the Engli...
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According to a few sites, Shakespeare coined over 1700 words.  Other writers have made their contributions to the English language, which is often a language that accepts words from everywhere and every culture.  So, what is language and who decides what standard English is, anyway?

The French are much more protective of their language.  L’Académie française protects its language from infiltration by other languages, wanting to keep it as pure as possible.  There are, of course, situations in which it cannot be helped – such as when technology intervenes and the words associated with the technology must be used instead of translated into French.  I first studied this phenomenon in high school philology and linguistics class.  It was interesting to see how the French jealously guarded their language while the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) expanded to include newly coined words at a rapid clip.

I’m asking this question because I am preparing to teach English at the secondary level through the MAT@USC – the Master of Arts in Teaching through the University of Southern California.  As I approach the point where I will student teach, I’m wondering how restrictive I should be when it comes to the language that students use, both in discussion and in writing.  I would rather be less restrictive.  Language is a creative semiotic tool that allows us to communicate with one another and also helps us think.  It is used to generate our worldview, help us with higher-order cognition, and make sense of the world.  It is culturally situated.  Who am I to insist that students change their fundamental way of thinking and making sense of the world?  That’s just a reflective question, one that should be answered before generating a solid opinion.

What do you think language is?

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