Learning that language is more than just talk

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 January, 2010, 12:00am

Blockbuster film Avatar may be breaking box-office records and stunning audiences with its 3D effects, but the movie also has people talking for a different reason. The invented Na'vi language spoken by characters in the film's alien world, and credited to a university professor in California, has drawn new attention to the subject of linguistics.

The film highlights the concept of language and how systems of grammar and syntax give a recognisable and comprehensible structure to create communication and meaning from what would otherwise be just a series of sounds.

'Language defines us, especially when you ask why speech is not available to other species,' says Professor Thomas Lee Hun-tak, postgraduate programme co-ordinator for the department of linguistics and modern languages at Chinese University.

'You can look at it as a mental phenomenon, as a function of the mind and part of our human biology.'

Lee's own special area of interest is language acquisition, and while he would no doubt be interested if Hollywood came calling, he has his hands full teaching MA courses and overseeing research students completing their MPhils or PhDs.

He explains that Chinese University's MA in linguistics is already proving popular, with between 30 and 40 students enrolled each year. They can choose the one-year full-time or two-year part-time option, but have to be ready to tackle an extensive reading list and 'very intensive' coursework.

'We could have taken more, but want to make sure students demonstrate some genuine interest in language, otherwise they may find our curriculum too theoretical or too demanding,' Lee says.

The course has been running for eight years and essentially deals with the scientific study of language. It introduces students, most of whom have not had rigorous previous exposure to the subject, to foundation concepts like phonetics (the physical properties of speech), syntax (how words are combined to form sentences), and morphology (the study of word structures and how they can be modified).

The programme also provides the tools to conduct systematic analysis. These skills and techniques are developed through the study of three main areas: the comparative study of languages looking at English and Chinese; language acquisition and bilingualism; and sign linguistics and how it works.

'I think our postgraduate programmes are fairly research-oriented, which reflects the interests of the faculty,' Lee says.

'Instruction is in lecture and tutorial format, and while students don't have to do a research project, we encourage those who reach a certain GPA [grade-point average] to do so in order to tap into their own originality and findings,' he says.

He adds that the department also offers an MA in Chinese linguistics and language acquisition, now in its second year. This course places more emphasis on the theoretical study of Chinese language structure and the differences in the learning of Chinese as a first or second language. In particular, it goes into key aspects of grammar and phonology as they affect the development of second language skills.

'We emphasise an approach that is based on the concept of universal grammar,' Lee says.

'Language may differ on the surface, but there is an underlying elegant and unifying design. If you see the complexity of syntactic structure, the meaning of words and sentences, you can also see the unifying principles that may have something to do with the structure of the human brain.'

Each programme requires the completion of eight courses equivalent to 24 units for the full MA degree. In terms of fees, full-time students can expect to pay about HK$90,000, although Chinese University does offer scholarships every year to the top three in each MA stream based on their GPA.

Applicants are generally from diverse backgrounds, with some having language-related first degrees, while others come with previous qualifications in everything from engineering and business to psychology, speech sciences and literature.

'Our students are from a wide spectrum of disciplines; somehow they became interested in language as it relates to their job,' says Lee.

'In some components, there may also be teaching practice, so the qualifications can satisfy some benchmark for professional language teachers.'

He says instruction for the MA in linguistics is predominantly in English, as is much of the reading material for the programme in Chinese linguistics and language acquisition. Classes take place on the university campus and, where practical, part-time and full-time students attend the same lectures.

To remain current, the department is in the process of developing and introducing new options to reflect the growing interest in bilingualism acquisition. There was also a special focus on sign language as a distinct discipline.

The purpose was to look at general theories governing the structure of this mode of communication, as well as the essential similarities with and differences from spoken language.

'We are heavily engaged in research on Hong Kong sign language,' Lee says.

'It has its own complex morphology and syntax, and its own system in the way it expresses meaning, which has no relation to Cantonese. That is what's fascinating about this field of study.'

The department usually admits between four and eight MPhil students per year, with the final number determined by the research proposals put forward and the availability of funding. Candidates whose area of interest align with those of faculty members obviously stand the best chance of early acceptance.

'The faculty is very serious about the postgraduate programmes,' Lee says. 'We really see it as a commitment to promote our own discipline. Every full-time staff member is involved in the MA programmes, so the students really get very high-quality teaching.'