‘What is language?’

Student notes for Part 2 This question asks something seemingly simple: ‘What is language?’ The question however is more complicated than it first appears, because it requires you to critically evaluate two very different ways in which this question has been addressed: the way of experimental psychology and the way of discursive psychology. You need, in other words, to be able to take two quite different perspectives on language and to convey both perspectives to the reader of your essay. You are also being asked to give examples used by cognitive, developmental and social psychologists, so you will need to refer to at least one study from each of these domains within your essay. Note however that it is not necessary nor expected that you include an example from both perspectives (experimental and discursive) for each of the psychological domains (cognitive, developmental and social). With respect to experimental psychology, you have encountered some examples of how language has been explored from this perspective in Week 5 of the module (for example, in the AV material in the Week 5 Study Guide, and the corresponding textbook chapter, Chapter 4). The second perspective, that of discursive psychology, was introduced in Weeks 12 and 13 (Chapters 9 and 10). You are asked to critically evaluate the differences at play in these two ways of addressing the question ‘What is language?’ Doing this is partly a matter of evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches, but in so doing you should make clear the important differences between them, both theoretically (how they think about the nature of language) and practically (the methods used in studying it). ‘

The introduction to the Week 5 Study Guide presents itself as continuing ‘your exploration of the use of experimentation, applying it to language’. So here language is very much the topic and experimentation is the means by which we gain knowledge of that topic. For this reason, Chapter 4, Section 2 asks the direct question ‘What is language?’ The answer that is offered sets the scene for the main body of the chapter, which deals with the relationship between language and thought, on the assumption, spelled out on p. 157, that ‘thinking underlies language’. Not all of the methods discussed in this material are experimental, and so you will need to be discerning about which you use, but there are plenty of examples of experimental work discussed. For example, within Chapter 4 you will find discussions of experimental work on the impact of language on colour discrimination (Section 4.1) and time perception (Section 4.2), and in Week 5 you will find AV material discussing how laboratory experiments can be used to understand how babies learn to perceive language. For the discursive psychology part of your answer, you can use either Week 12 (and Chapter 9) or Week 13 (Chapter 10) or, if you prefer, draw material from both. You will not get more marks simply because you draw material from both, so whichever option you choose should be about finding your preferred way of answering. As Alison Davies makes clear in the welcome audio of the introduction to the Week 12 Study Guide, discursive psychology offers an alternative theoretical approach to cognitive psychology.

This includes an alternative method (i.e. discourse analysis), which is quite different from experimentation. She describes discourse analysis as a focus on the performative aspects of language, and this issue is also discussed and illustrated in the textbook chapters. Paul Stenner puts forward a similar point in the welcome audio to Week 13, stating that discursive methodologies study the organisation of talk in daily life, and not the psychological processes assumed to exist beneath the talk. This means that, unlike with Chapter 4, language as such is not the direct topic of Chapters 9 and 10, and this difference is important to the question set. Chapter 9 deals with the topic of identities related to ADHD and Chapter 10 deals with the topic of autobiographical remembering. You will need to understand how and why discursive psychologists approach these topics as ‘topics within discourse’, and hence as part of language. As the question requires you to draw on studies from at least two weeks of the module, you will need to present an overview of both ways of thinking about language and carefully select some illustrative examples to focus on in your essay. As the word limit is only 2000 words, you will need to keep your points directly relevant and to summarise your evaluation effectively. There is no requirement for your answer to come down on one side or other of the two ways of thinking about language, but it is important that you convey a critical sense of the difference between the approaches.

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