It should not be surprising that a theory of language based on “performance” data (while being informed by independent bodies of knowledge such as communication, psychology and phonetics) should have practical applications. To date, Columbia School has only begun to explore this important aspect of the study of language, but this section should give an idea of the general kind of impact that a radically functional linguistic theory can have in applied linguistic areas.
Applications of Columbia School phonological theory have been explored by Yishai Tobin (1997), Phonology as Human Behavior: Theoretical Implications and Clinical Applications, Durham, Duke UP. The book contains chapters on Tobin’s and his students’ research into:
- Developmental phonology and functional clinical applications
- Clinical applications to organic disorders
- Audiology, hearing impairment, and cochlear implants
Other research is currently underway in applying the theory to automatic speech recognition systems.
For the past two decades, communicative pedagogies have dominated second language instruction. The idea has been that a concentration of effort on the rules of grammar would detract from the goal of basic communicative competence. The underlying assumption was that grammatical form per se does not carry meaning. Now we see that the unfortunate consequence of that approach is a widespread failure of learners to achieve the grammatical accuracy required for academic success.
Columbia School has a very different perspective. For us, grammar, like vocabulary, conveys meaning. These meanings are the tools that speakers and writers employ in the construction of messages. As a result, grammar is part of—not apart from—communicative competence. The goal for us, then, is to allow learners to achieve full communicative competence, including grammatical proficiency. One of our members wrote a paper on the role of linguistic theory in ESL pedagogy.
Since the 1960’s, research in early reading has been sharply divided between those who focused on language sub-skills as the key to learning to read, and those who favored more holistic, meaning-based approaches to early literacy. Labeled the “great debate” by Jeanne Chall (1967), the controversy was fostered, in part, by assumptions about the basic nature of language that characterized concurrent linguistic theory. At the heart of the debate lay different views on the relative contribution of print to the larger process of reading comprehension. One of our members wrote a paper that examines the debate at its most basic level, that of linguistic theory. A thorough analysis of the major linguistic theories that have contributed to the debate will reveal that many share common assumptions about language.
Naturally, a linguistic theory that holds that grammar is meaningful will have something to contribute to the problem of translation. If the task of translation is to render into another language the message expressed in an original language, and if grammatical meaning, like lexical content, contributes to that inferred message, and if grammars are language-specific, then a translator will need to take into account the grammatical systems available in each language, and will need to be sensitive to the differences between them.
One result of an adequate semantic analysis of a language’s grammar is that one is enabled to perceive inadequacies in translations of literary texts that rely, implicitly or not, upon traditional grammar. If the grammars of languages differ and communicate meaning, then the task of insightful translation depends partly upon the translator’s knowledge of those two semantics.
To illustrate: Traditional grammars of Latin recognize that the subjunctive mood of the verb is often used for hypothetical actions but sometimes used, like the indicate mood, for actions that do take place. In the latter case, translators may bypass the semantic contribution made by the subjunctive, being blinded by the fact of actual occurrence. In other words, an aspect of the scene being described in the text is substituted for an aspect of the message being intended by the writer.
We occasionally find passages [in Caesar’s De Bello Gallico] full of Subjunctives that are translated as through they were all Indicatives. [Below,] I have put the Subjunctives in all caps and underlined the Indicatives.
IV 28 2 Quae [naves] cum APPROPINQUARENT Britanniae et ex castris VIDERENTUR, tanta tempestas subito coorta est ut nulla earum cursum tenere POSSET, sed aliae eodem unde erant profectae REFERRENTUR, aliae ad inferiorem partem insulae, quae est propius solis occasum, magno sui cum periculo DEICERENTUR; quae tamen ancoris iactis cum fluctibus COMPLERENTUR, necessario adversa nocte in altum provectae continente petierunt.
Loeb: When they WERE NEARING Britain, and IN VIEW of the camp, so fierce a storm suddenly arose that none of them WAS ABLE TO hold on its course; some WERE CARRIED BACK to the selfsame port whence they started, others WERE DRIVEN AWAY, with great peril to themselves, to the lower, that is, to the more westerly, part of the island. None the less, they cast anchor; but when they BEGAN TO FILL with the waves they were obliged to stand out to sea in a night of foul weather, and made for the Continent.
The Subjunctives are completely ignored. As a corrective, let’s insist on translating the Subjunctives as Positive Certainty. Theme: So near and yet so far: A dramatic presentation.
Four days after the arrival in Britain, the eighteen ships weighed anchor, in a gentle breeze, from the upper port: leni vento solverunt.
The gentle breeze sets up the expectation of an easy passage. But then the unexpected sets in:
These, when they WERE ACTUALLY QUITE CLOSE to Britain, and WERE EVEN SEEN from camp, such a storm suddenly came up that non of them WAS EVEN ABLE to hold course, but some WERE ACTUALLY CARRIED BACK to the same port whence they set out, others WERE DRIVEN CLEAR DOWN to the lower part of the island, which is nearer the sunset, to their great peril; these even with anchors down WERE NEVERTHELESS FILLED with the waves, driven by necessity into deep water, in spite of hostile darkness, they sought the mainland.
Is this a daring translation, or conservative? Caesar apparently does not intend a tame recital of events here.