Monday, October 11, 2010

Denotations of the word “language”: native, foreign, and subject-specific

The noun “language” often refers to a natural language that a group of people have in common and use to communicate with each other and to understand each other (at least, linguistically). This language, then, is their native language. Unless born in a bilingual society, a child grows up to speak and write in its native language and may learn one or more foreign languages.

A student of an academic discipline or subdiscipline—from macroeconomics to microbiology—acquires knowledge in a particluar field of study through either her native or a foreign language. The latter is the case in class rooms and lecture halls, where disciples with different language backgrounds come together to plunge into the same field of study. This content and language integrated learning (CLIL) approach focuses on combined learning of curriculum material and skills in the mediating academic language.

A particular field of study typically comes along with a large and, depending on the discipline, rapidly growing dictionary of subject-specific terms. Such terms often have their roots in a language different from that in which the subject is taught. A subject-specific language, also called terminology, includes words and phrases to which the grammar of the chosen academic language applies as well as strongly subject-associated notations and codes. In chemistry, for example, the symbols of the chemical elements or the short notations for α-amino acids (one- and three-letter code) can be thought of as basic language particles. Words or names for other objects and concepts in chemistry are derived on the basis of a large and evolving set of nomenclature recommendations and from designed encoding languages such as CurlySMILES.

Keywords: linguistics, academic communication, terminology, nomenclature, linear notations

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