Linguistics is the study of the structure, functions and acquisition of human language. This introductory chapter will introduce you to the enormous complexity of language and to the fact that our understanding of grammar depends on our world knowledge and on the context. This is followed by a discussion of the characteristics of human language and some ways of defining it. In comparing attempts to teach an ape human language with the language acquisition of small children, we ask whether human language has evolved from some shared, pre-existing communication system, or whether it is unlike anything that already exists in the animal world. The chapter discusses the views of Noam Chomsky on this question; we introduce evidence of native-speaker intuitions and children's errors in language acquisition which might support his argument that language is innate to humans. We then go on to discuss the approach and concerns of linguistics: that it is descriptive, and that it can be studied in its social context. The chapter ends by considering the rigorous and evidence-based methods, as well as the analytical tools, which linguists use to investigate language. Lastly, the chapter will introduce you to some of the uses and applications of linguistics. As you go through this chapter, and through the book, you will find exercises that allow you to practise these techniques of analysis.
Any introductory textbook in linguistics will reveal to students that language is much more complex than speakers think it is, as they unself-consciously use it in their daily communication. As you work through this book, you will become aware that the different levels of language (discussed in Section 1.9 below) interact. You will learn that human language shows marked differences from animal communication systems. As speakers of English, or whatever our first language is, we all use it with a huge degree of proficiency. Some of us are able to use language in several different modes: speech, writing, email, or sign. Despite that, few of us could define what human language is. At the outset, it is important to make one clear distinction between the universal human faculty of language, which we all have, and the fact that different languages exist, and are used by different ethnic or national groups.