Foreign languages – new horizons
Foreign languages give us the opportunity to discover exciting new worlds, and offer us a new perspective on our own world. For the worlds we experience are less the reality as it 'really' is than what we are told about them, and this applies to the natural, the social and the spiritual world, the world of ideas. What for the German is a Schloss, can be a castle, a palace or a manor house in Britain, and for the English mind, the dictionary gives us esprit or raison in French, and Geist or Verstand in German. But do these words really mean the same?
The desire to understand foreign cultures may have been the traditional reason to study foreign languages. Competitive schools tell us that speaking foreign tongues is part of being 'ein allseits gebildeter Mensch' in Germany, or a ‘gentleman’ in Britain. However, below the surface of such noble motives often lurk more selfish considerations: To get a top job where you can earn loads of money, the knowledge of foreign languages is as essential as parents with the right background and connexions. This is the message of private schools not only in Britain, but there in particular, and there it goes together with a hardly concealed discouragement at state schools to take up languages. Some states, like Luxembourg - and soon also Saarland, we hope - are pursuing more egalitarian goals: by making the whole population bilingual or multilingual, they create a polyglot society, which not only affords better job opportunities but also a familiarity with different cultural perspectives of the world we encounter.
How can such goals be approached? I plead for an awareness of the differences between languages. This means I am in conflict with the pervasive British model of teaching the target language without recourse to the learners' native language. For generations, Britain has been sending out English teachers to the wide world who often don’t speak the local lingo. Teaching English abroad or at home has become an important asset of the British economy: “With over 20,000 ESL teaching jobs available monthly, English as a Second Language teachers are in high demand globally.” (http://www.oxfordseminars.ca/teach-english-abroad/20000-esl-jobs.php) As we know from migrant classes in Germany, this model also has the advantage of being cost-effective, as learners speaking different native languages can be taught together. But it fails to make us aware of cultural differences and correspondences. We are taught which words collocate with mind, so that we can emulate the typical English language user. Yet, we fail to notice how different this concept is from the German Geist or the French esprit.
Of course, teaching foreign languages means, first of all, teaching rules – rules describing how the target language is used. Following these rules is important – it makes what we say acceptable. But it is also important to understand their limitations. For the ultimate goal of foreign language learning should be to get to the point where the speaker’s creativity takes over, where he or she begins to contribute something new to the host discourse. By offering us new perspectives, a foreign language gives us the opportunity to reflect on the role language in general has for understanding the world in which we find ourselves.
Since 2014, I am emeritus professor at the University of Birmingham. Having been the chair of corpus linguistics, I have now gradually moved towards discourse analysis.
As a linguist, I am interested in meaning more than in anything else. There are many other fields, for instance the study of the language system with its universal laws and arbitrary rules, the study of pragmatics, aimed at explaining how we understand each other beyond the confines of the language system, and the study of language variation and of language change. Meaning, however, is not a matter of the mechanics of a language system. Meaning is constructed through the symbolic interactions of the members of a discourse community. Only the analysis and comparison of discourses can shed light on meaning. Corpus linguistics provides a methodology helping us to find the textual evidence for the meaning of lexical items. The meaning of a lexical item, as I understand it, is co-extensive with the knowledge of the discursively constructed object for which this item stands. There is no point in distinguishing lexical meaning from encyclopaedic meaning. The aim of linguistics, as I see it, is to reconstruct the often implicit but sometimes explicit negotiations going on in discourse communities shaping meaning. For meaning is never fixed. Every new contribution to discourse adds something to what has been said before.
Here are some of my more relevant publications in recent years:
(2010) Meaning, Discourse and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(2012) Is pragmatics the answer to our quest for meaning?, in: Language and Dialogue 1, 1.
(2012) Democracy and web-based dialogue. In: Francois Cooren and Alain Létourneau (eds.): Dialogue and Representation. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
(2013): Was there a cat in the garden? Knowledge between discourse and the monadic self. In: Language and Dialogue Vol. 2, 2.
(2013) Die Wirklichkeit des Diskurses. In: Dietrich Busse and Wolfgang Teubert (eds.): Linguistische Diskursanalyse - Neue Perspektiven. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.
(2014) Die Bedeutung von Sprachkritik für die Demokratie. In: Aptum 02, 98-114.