Language features: Implications for teaching and learning [Archives:2007/1051/Education]

May 17 2007

Dr. Abdulhameed Ashuja'a
Assistant Prof and Coordinator, Parallel Education System, Department of English, Faculty of Languages,
Sana'a University

Human language is a system meant, mainly, for communication. With the passage of time, human needs develop and change. As a result, human system of communication develops and changes. This evolution of human communication system (language) is characterized by several features. While discussing language features, Jean Aitchison1 made it clear that acquiring language by human children is the same across the world irrespective of where it is spoken or to which language family it belongs. It is also said that ” all languages express the same meanings, but with differing structural realizations”2. Knowledge of the process of language acquisition is necessary for all teachers of foreign languages in order to make teaching and learning the target language as natural as the acquisition of the learner's mother tongue. This article will discuss some language features and their implications to the classroom. It will also provide examples to make it possible for the teacher of English to apply some of these features in their English classes.

1. Naming Insight: It is said that human beings started their language by naming people, animals, objects and things. This supports the idea that language began with nouns which are considered to be primary in the evolution of language. That is why our children start their language by naming things related to their basic needs, e.g. milk, mum, doll, etc. Based on this feature, many English text books are designed for children or beginners.

In the classroom, the teacher can start by naming things to children. Later, the teacher can use nouns as a communicative device for his/her beginner learners. For example, a grocery or shopping list can be used to develop communicative interactions in the classroom context. At a later stage, the teacher can shift into introducing nouns which can be used as verbs.


can [n.] – John canned the tuna .

bag [n.] _Ali bagged the clothes.

bug [n.] _ Jim bugged the microphones.

2. Doing or describing actions and events: This is a second step after the naming stage that human babies go through. Obviously, verbs are of great importance; they coexist with nouns to express percepts, events and actions which involve change in the surrounding environment. Any sentence in any language should have at least one verb. In the process of language acquisition children start attaching verbs to nouns in the two-word utterances stage.


'mummy go'

'doll sleep'

'I drink'

This gradation in child language development can be transferred to the formal context of learning a second or foreign language where we can start with simple and easy forms, especially with beginners.

3. Interchangeability: This feature means that all humans have a natural ability of sending and receiving messages. Therefore, language teachers should enable and help the learners to practise their natural ability to send messages. In other words, language learners need to be given the chance to speak most of the class time, notwithstanding the mistakes they may make.

4. Flexibility: This feature is evident in the availability of adpositions (words used before or after nouns) in language. In other words, some languages have prepositions (e.g. English and Arabic), while some other have postpositions (e.g. Hindi). Flexibility in human language lies in the fact that many different ideas can be expressed by a limited number of prepositions.


at 3 o' clock in the city

at home in trouble

at a glance in progress

at a stretch in touch with

etc. etc.

Being aware of this feature, the teacher may help his/her students utilize whatever they know to express other new ideas without requiring more efforts.

4. Generativity: It means that language is a rule-governed system. By a set of finite rules, humans can generate and produce countless number of sentences. They can also generate and recognize any sentence which they have never uttered or seen before. This feature is said to be related to the generative nature of human cognition. An awareness of this feature is necessary for the teacher when dealing with the learners of the target language. S/he should know that generativity is not a result of a mere repetition or imitation of certain structures. Rather, it results from appropriate and enough exposure to language; it develops from enough data available in the teaching /learning context. In other words, generativity can develop from learning experiences where language chunks are in use, so that language learners familiarize themselves with the target language. Consequently, language learners will start to apply their innate ability to generate and develop hierarchical structures.


My long red new pen is expensive

My red new pen

My new pen

My pen

In the fitness of things, the classroom should provide a conducive environment for the learner to acquire the target language at ease. Language tasks should be contextualized and relevant to the learners' level and needs.

5. Meaning extension: This feature distinguishes human language from other communication systems.


' head ' is used in these senses:

head of the body

head of the tribe

head of the department

Language teachers can make use of the known to get the unknown. In other words, they can help the learner (particularly adult intermediate learners), expand and develop their language by using the language chunks they have already acquired.

6. Language structures: These are not dealt with in isolation; meaning should be taken into account while interpreting language structures.


– For no money would Jack wash the car. (he wouldn't)

– For no money Jack would wash the car. (he would)

In these two examples, structures seem similar, but meaning is different. This underscores the need that language teaching should be meaning-driven, i.e. contextualized and communicative tasks should be encouraged and developed; isolated and mechanical language exercises should be discouraged and avoided.


To conclude, awareness of language features is necessary for the teacher in order to help his/her students learn and acquire the target language easily and efficiently. Language tasks and exercises can be designed and developed along the lines of these features. A language teacher can, therefore, be in a better position to introduce conducive learning experiences in the classroom as well as to overcome language learning difficulties.