PTJK / Cognitive Linguistics in the year 2018

Your CiFRAN trainers are back from Poznań, in Poland, where a cognitive linguistics conference (PTJK 2018) just took place. Claude Germain’s book The Neurolinguistic Approach (NLA) for Learning and Teaching Foreign Languages: Theory and Practice tells us that ‘Paradis’s distinction is fully in line with a recent trend in cognitive linguistics dedicated to construction grammar, which now insists on the syntax-lexicon continuum rather than their separation’ (p. 12); in light of this, we went to find out for you what cognitive linguistics currently have to tell us.

Brought into being in the United States, particularly by George Lakoff, following a break with Noam Chomsky’s generative linguistics, cognitive linguistics shares with neurolinguistics the belief that learning and using languages is a function of human cognitive functions. A major difference remains, however: the way in which language is conceived by cognitive linguistics remains resolutely ‘classical’, in that most of the field’s practitioners hold that language is fundamentally a question of knowledge and that grammar is acquired through conceptualisation.

From this standpoint, it would seem that not all researchers have followed the new turn presented by cognitive neuroscience, which highlights the importance of unconscious phenomena to cognitive function. At the same time, our meetings at this conference showed that many current research projects in cognitive linguistics are less and less speculative and more and more founded on the analysis of genuinely empirical experiments. Indeed, cognitive linguistics appear to be divided into two quite distinct branches: one where research is based on purely descriptive analyses of linguistic forms (a descendant of the analytical tradition), and one where research focuses on the observation of language behaviours in social situations (relatives, therefore, of anthropology or ethnolinguistics). In the latter vein, we met with several researchers who are drawing on the introspection tools commonly used by neuroscience – we might point here, for example, to Johanna Kisseler’s remarkable paper “Emotion and context in word processing” (Bielefeld University, Germany), but also to the brilliant analyses of multimodal communication in Cornelian Müller’s “Multimodal patterns: Temporality and embodiment of meaning making” (Viadrina University, Frankfurt, Germany).

Questioning Dr. Müller on the lessons to be learned by teachers of living languages from the multimodalities of communication, she told us the following: ‘Language teachers must understand the importance of the fundamentally corporeal and primarily oral dimension of human language; they must also understand the basics of the multimodal functioning of communication in oral interactions, namely the importance of gestures, postures, and facial mimicry in negotiating sense and emotion. At the same time, this is too complex a conceptual field to be taught explicitly to language learners: teachers must know that this is involved, and they must also understand how it is involved, but linguistic multimodality cannot be explicitly taught in the classroom; it must be acquired implicitly (in class and elsewhere)’. To which we would add that this takes place through modelling.

Currently, two teachers in Germany have been introduced to the NLA, but our conversations at this conference with several researchers and language teachers who seemed interested by the NLA and the workshops we provide suggest that our approach could spread in Central Europe.

To be followed…

Olivier Massé