FAQ about Language and Linguistics

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FAQ about Language and Linguistics

Linguistics training provides students with valuable intellectual skills, including critical thinking, analytic reasoning and logical argumentation. It also develops students’ practical skills in making observations, identifying patterns, analyzing data, formulating and testing hypotheses, making arguments and drawing conclusions, and communicating their findings through speaking and writing.

Linguistics majors are either required or encouraged to have proficiency in at least one language besides English and their native Chinese language. Many Linguistics majors spend time studying or traveling abroad. This helps them understand how languages vary and how their native language fits into a broader picture. It also provides them with an excellent opportunity to develop multilingual competence.

Students trained in Linguistics can compete from a position of strength whenever rational, independent and creative thinking is valued and strong verbal and analytical skills are required. Linguistics majors are well prepared for a variety of jobs as well as postgraduate and professional programs. They can pursue careers in such areas as the public relations, civil services, publishing and communication industries, translating and interpreting, computational fields, language education, and the teaching of English/Chinese as a second language. They can also choose to further their studies in Linguistics and Applied Linguistics, or (sometimes in combination with training in another specialization) in the related disciplines of Cognitive Science, Psychology, Speech and Hearing sciences, Anthropology, Philosophy, Education, Communication Sciences, Library/Information science, Computer Science and Information Technology, or Law.

For most students in Hong Kong, learning a Modern Language at a university setting means acquiring a third language. The most obvious benefit from studying a Modern Language is the ability to communicate with speakers from a different speech community. Communication could also be achieved by using a lingua franca that speakers of both speech communities share (e.g. an international language like English). However, if one wants to become part of the speech community and access its cultural knowledge, ways of thinking and shared values, proficiency in its language is essential. Immersing into the ‘new world’ of a different speech community will help one critically reflect on it and on one’s own identity and values. Research has shown that acquiring additional linguistic codes will enrich one’s linguistic capacities, in particular one’s sensitivity to language.

There are many other practical benefits and advantages in acquiring a Modern Language, in particular an increased competitiveness in the job market. In a recent graduate survey, about half of our graduates responded that they found their language training in Modern Languages useful for their current job. Around one-fifth of them reported that they are currently working or have been working with a company from the country of their target language or even in the country of the target language.

Human languages are systems of communication. Although they seem very different on the surface, linguists have discovered a set of characteristics that all human languages share. Any chunk of human language, or utterance, is composed of one or more signs, which in a particular language community have conventionalized meanings. In spoken languages, utterances are composed of speech sounds. In sign languages, utterances are composed of manual forms (also called signs) serving the same functions.

Human languages are not simply strings of signs. Human languages have what is called a duality of patterning, meaning that they are composed of two layers. There is a surface layer, made up of individual elements that are themselves meaningless. This is the layer of phonology. In spoken languages this layer is composed of speech sounds; in sign languages this layer is composed of hand shapes and movements. The elements in the phonological layer are combined to represent a meaningful layer of words and sentences. Another characteristic of human languages is that the relationship between signs and their meanings is arbitrary. Arbitrariness in this sense refers to the fact that for the most part, there is no predictable relationship between the form of a sign and its meaning. For example, the English word rose and the Chinese word 玫瑰 refer to the same sort of object in the real world, but there is nothing about either form that indicates its meaning.

In addition to arbitrariness, human languages are infinitely productive. This means that words in a language can be combined and recombined in an infinite number of ways to produce an unlimited number of possible utterances. It is also possible for a language to coin new words whenever a need arises. Human languages are not limited to discussing the 'here and now'. They are capable of displacement, in terms of space and time, allowing them to discuss anything, anywhere and at any time.

Despite all of their complexity and infinite expressive power, human languages are learnable, and are acquired spontaneously in early childhood, without apparent effort on the part of the child and with very little explicit instruction on the part of adult caregivers. This sets human languages apart from other skills like learning to read and write, which require years of formal education to master. The fact that human languages are learnable appears to be due to how our brains are structured, so in effect humans are 'built' for acquiring and using human languages, but there are many unanswered questions concerning what about language is innate and what is learned.

From the perspective of linguistics, the answer to this question is ‘no’, although there is some disagreement in the field about whether the differences between the communication systems of animals and human languages are due to qualitative or quantitative differences. In other words, there is not yet consensus about whether human languages are a unique kind of communicative system, or whether they are simply the most complex and elaborated of communicative systems.

Recent research has begun to alter the ways that scientists think about animal communication systems, many of which are more complex that previously thought, with much more expressive power. Some of these include the chemical communication systems of social insects like ants, the ‘dances’ of bees, the visual displays of some types of squid and octopus, the songs of birds and whales, and the systems of calls used by many different kinds of animals like prairie dogs, dolphins, vervet monkeys, marmosets and different types of apes. The more that is revealed about these systems, the more the gap between animal communication systems and full human language seems to narrow. But as useful as these communication systems are for the animals that use them, there are still important differences between these systems and human language. One of the most important features of human language is its generative capacity, in which a restricted set of discrete units can be combined and recombined together to produce an infinite number of possible utterances. This is possible because human language is organized with a ‘duality of patterning’, meaning that an utterance is made up of a surface layer composed of meaningless units, and a semantic or meaningful layer. The relationship between these two layers is arbitrary. In animal communication systems there is only a single layer of patterning, with a one-to-one association between form and meaning. This limits the number and types of messages that these systems can convey. Furthermore, human languages are capable of discussing things and events that are displaced in time and space. In other words, human languages are not limited to the here-and-now, but are able to talk about anything, at any time and at any place. As far as we can tell, no animal communication system is able to do this. An additional property unique to human language is that it allows for meta-linguistics, or the ability for human language to discuss itself (as this paragraph does).

For the same reasons that there is no universal spoken language, there is no universal sign language. Ethnologue ( currently lists 130 different sign languages from around the world, but many sign languages remain undocumented. Sign languages are unrelated to the spoken languages used by the surrounding hearing communities, and have developed naturally in different communities of Deaf people. This means that Hong Kong Sign Language (HKSL) for example, is not derived from or based upon spoken Cantonese. Sign languages evolve and change over time, just like spoken languages do, and they can differ from each other in terms of their syntactic structures, morphological and phonological systems. Again, as with spoken languages, there may be distinct varieties and dialects within a single sign language. Some sign languages are associated with a specific city or region, like HKSL, or Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN), but there may also be multiple distinct sign languages within a single country. This is the case in Vietnam were the sign languages of Hoh Chi Minh City, Haiphong and Hanoi are considered separate languages. Conversely, the sign languages of different countries may be very closely related and mutually intelligible to a high degree. For historical reasons, this is the case with British Sign Language (BSL), Australian Sign Language (Auslan) and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). Since sign language is not universal, when members of different Deaf communities come together for conferences, the Deaflympics and other international events, an auxiliary sign system is often used, called International Sign. This sign system is a pidgin, with a relatively limited lexicon and with less complexity and conventionalization than a full natural sign language.

One might think that children acquire language by imitation and reinforcement, with parents coaching children how to speak the language of the community. Scientific evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Children are biologically programmed to acquire language; they develop language in much the same way they develop abilities like walking. So long as they do not suffer from any mental deficit and grow up with normal exposure to language, all children succeed in acquiring their native language.

Children go through universal stages in acquiring the language of the community: they begin to babble at around six months of age. First words appear toward the end of the first year, and two-word combinations begin to be produced at around one and a half years of age. Before they are two years old, they have begun to produce multi-word utterances that involve words referring to concrete things as well as abstract relationships. Many scholars hold the view that by three years of age, children have mastered the core properties of their mother tongue such as the order of constituents in a sentence, major parts of speech (e.g. nouns and verbs) and grammatical distinctions that indicate whether a clause is marked for tense. Children’s minds have built-in linguistic information that guides them to pick up the prominent features of their native language (e.g. whether the language is stress-timed or syllable-timed, or the word order of the language) rapidly and effortlessly, without the need for instruction from parents or caretakers.

Children demonstrate sophisticated mental abilities relevant to language acquisition at a very early age. From their first year of life, children are sensitive to the kinds of sound distinctions that are used in human language to signal meaning differences. They tune in to properties of the speech signal such as rhythm and prosody. One-year-old infants are aware of the statistical regularities in the speech they hear and are capable of joint attention and imitation in social interaction. These cognitive capacities, as well as other abilities such as generalization, pattern recognition, and analogy, are exploited in language acquisition. However, many scholars believe that an explanation of how children acquire language must invoke abstract linguistic categories and principles that are genetically specified.

The fact that children acquire language rapidly and effortlessly does not mean that they have developed adult command of their native language when they enter primary school. There are numerous properties of language use having to do with vocabulary, register and style, idioms, and special constructions which are intimately bound up with culture and social norms. The learning of these properties will take some years, and can be viewed as an essential component of cultural learning.

One of the research questions being investigated in the department is how young children cope with being exposed to two or more languages simultaneously. Parents often worry that more than one language will be a burden to the child and consider restricting the input to a single language. Research findings do not support these ideas. On the contrary, children are quite capable of acquiring two or even three languages given regular input in each language. In the case of Hong Kong, many children are exposed to and in contact with Cantonese, English and Mandarin on a daily basis. Cantonese is the language of the community and the mother tongue of the majority of Hong Kong people, English is an international language while Mandarin is the lingua franca in China. We are currently investigating how these languages develop in Hong Kong children.

Exposure to two or more languages in a bilingual environment naturally leads to the development of some form of bilingualism, though not necessarily balanced in every way. Some children may develop a dominant language and a weaker language in the early stages. Our research has found that the bilingual child’s language systems may interact in interesting ways which make their profiles different from those of monolingual children. For example, children acquiring Cantonese and English have been found to produce intermediate structures not seen in the monolingual development of either language. Beyond two languages, some children are simultaneously exposed to three or more languages. Research has begun to focus on trilingual children, probing the limits of the child’s language acquisition capacity. In our latest work, we are finding that trilingual children acquiring Cantonese, English and Mandarin have different profiles again from bilinguals acquiring Cantonese and English. But these are not signs of confusion. Infants have the remarkable ability to differentiate languages in the environment. Differentiation is evident in terms of perception and production. Research shows that 4-5 month old bilingual infants have the perceptual abilities to distinguish between closely related languages such as Spanish and Catalan. Bilingual infants show clear and early auditory discrimination between languages without any delay. It is possible to achieve native or native-like competence in more than one language in the preschool years. Far from being a burden for the young mind, acquiring two languages in infancy has been shown to give the child a host of cognitive benefits including enhanced creativity, mental flexibility and metalinguistic awareness. Bilingualism not only benefits the child’s cognitive development but also provides the key to two different cultures.

The ability to differentiate between different languages and the nature of the underlying mechanisms that support the acquisition of different languages in infancy and early childhood form the subject of intense scientific inquiry in current research in bilingual acquisition. The field of bilingual acquisition is a fast-growing interdisciplinary field that addresses these questions. The study of bilingual acquisition offers a window into the rich diversity and heterogeneity of bilingual children, their developmental processes and acquisition outcomes.

IPA refers to two closely related ideas: the International Phonetic Association and the International Phonetic Alphabet. The International Phonetic Association is the oldest representation of phoneticians. It was established in 1886 in Paris to promote the scientific study of phonetics and its various practical applications. The International Phonetic Alphabet is a system developed by the International Phonetic Association to represent the sounds of languages in written form. The International Phonetic Alphabet is a set of symbols based on the Roman alphabet. It is used as the standard notational system for phonetic representation of all languages in the world. The latest revision was made in 2005. The website of IPA can be found here: .

The IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) can represent all possible speech sounds of the world’s languages unambiguously. The representation of these sounds uses a set of phonetic categories which describe how each sound is made. Besides the basic symbols for vowels and consonants, there are many diacritics to mark subtle differences in pronunciation and features like tones and intonation. The IPA is widely used in various domains where written representation of speech sounds in necessary and can be used for many purposes. For example, it can be used to show pronunciation in a dictionary, to record a language in linguistic fieldwork, to form the basis of a writing system for a language, or to annotate acoustic and other displays in the analysis of speech. The full IPA chart can be found here:

Cantonese has grammar just like other human languages. When we say that Cantonese has grammar, it means that it has a distinct set of rules governing the composition of sounds, words, phrases, and sentences. In terms of its sound system, Cantonese is a tone language which has a minimum of six distinctive tones. At the word level, Cantonese, like other analytic languages, lacks inflectional morphemes that mark tense, number, and gender. Nonetheless, Cantonese has at least three productive means of forming new words, including affixation (阿- +明 ® 阿明), reduplication (個 ® 個個), and compounding (餐+廳 ® 餐廳). Words can in turn be combined together to form phrases, such as noun phrases (嗰間餐廳) and verb phrases (鐘意嗰間餐廳). At the sentential level, Cantonese has the basic S(ubject)-V(erb)-O(bject) order, as in 我鐘意嗰間餐廳. Those who are interested in learning more about Cantonese grammar are recommended to consult the following works:

張洪年. 1972.《香港粵語語法的研究》. 香港:香港中文大學出版社.

袁家驊. 1983. 粵方言.《漢語方言槪要》, 192-249. 北京:文字改革出版社.

Matthews, Stephen, and Virginia Yip. 1994. Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar. London and New York: Routledge.