Academic journal article German Quarterly

What Kind of Resource Is Language and Why Does It Matter for German Studies?

Academic journal article German Quarterly

What Kind of Resource Is Language and Why Does It Matter for German Studies?

Article excerpt

I first considered the question posed in the title of this paper in conjunction with a DAAD-sponsored symposium at Michigan State University, entitled "Engaged Learning: Best Practices to Invigorate German Literary and Cultural Studies." As I revisit the question a year later, I return to the three lenses I used to situate my earlier views, but find each endowed with additional focus. The first and local lens has been sharpened by a repositioning of my comments as an applied linguist in a journal whose readership is primarily made up of scholars in German Studies. That relocation also creates a new, virtual dialogue with the proposals by Katherine Arens, who lays out an intellectually persuasive case for a genre-oriented incorporation of the Standards project into a reconfigured higher education foreign language agenda, The second lens, which considered professional dynamics, has been refined through the call for deep reforms expressed in the MLA Report released earlier this year, "Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World."1 Almost concurrently, probing questions were also posed within the "language teaching" community, particularly whether "communicative competence" can continue to function as the preferred goal for language teaching and learning in higher education (Byrnes, "Interrogating"). Finally, under the widest angle, the language profession's educative role and its responsibility to be publicly accountable, foreign language departments will have to find ways of assessing student learning in their respective programs (Byrnes, "Outcomes"). To me that amounts to answering this question: how did the program simultaneously lead to students' language learning and to their learning of literary cultural content and how would we know the quality and extent of that learning through diverse forms of assessment?

These developments heighten the stakes and urgency for a response to the question guiding this essay. I propose that the answer will be found by addressing, at an even more fundamental level than has been customary, the relationships among and between language, literature, and culture. Ultimately, that means addressing the relationship between language as a social semiotic system that engenders the human capacity to make meaning in literally unlimited socially construed contexts of situation within an overall dynamic context of culture-and ways of knowing and learning through language. Such a deep probing requires a focus both on the systemic and functional characteristics of language in general and on the specific ways in which a given language can be analytically and descriptively related to the various social and cultural contexts it construes and which, in turn, underlie its forms of realization. This must be done not ad hoc, but by way of uncovering patterns that are theoretically motivated on the basis of understanding language as a social semiotic system.

Let me briefly elaborate this point with just one example, the notion of "context," a term both language and literary cultural studies have espoused with much enthusiasm and much imprecision. For both areas, as distinct from other fields of inquiry, context is fruitful only to the extent to which it is traced to noteworthy, patterned differences in language use. For, unless such relations can be established and specified in a principled fashion that is language-based and therefore traceable in its formal features at all levels of the system, from specific aspects of lexicogrammar to various text types, including literary texts, we either continue to state the obvious-namely that language is embedded in culture and expresses culture-or are consigned to noting an endless array of language-culture linkages, whether they are conjured up and framed by literary theories or expressed as endless lists of vocabulary items. As the eminent linguist M. A. K. Halliday, to whom I will subsequently refer at some length, stated with regard to the latter practice, the all too frequent observation that Arabs have many words for camels and Eskimos differentiate many forms of snow is almost comical in its misrepresentation of the real issues, namely that for a given language "the grammatical system as a whole represents the semantic code of a language" (Introduction xxxi). …

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