Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 2 : 2 April 2002

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editor: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.




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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai


N. Nadaraja Pillai, Ph.D.


The generative grammarians do not usually focus on the set of rules that deal with the ethnography of speaking. As a grammarian focused more on the deep structure rules and organization, I also think that this is a relevant restriction that we need to impose on the study of grammar. However, as a language teacher, I must care for the balanced development of the linguistic competence and performance in my students. I have to aim at a competence in my students that takes care of not only the usual linguistic performance but also the socially and communicatively appropriate performance. As Thirumalai (1977:34) points out, "this sort of differential competence is what one should aim at in learning and teaching a language to use the structures appropriately to meet the requirement of a communicative situation."


Scholars who emphasize communicative competence (Hymes 1971 a & b, Widdowson 1973) seem to imply that language is a total phenomenon and the use of language in a particular context in a natural way involved different kinds of structures and hence the procedures of selection and grading should not be applied to the grammatical units as dealt with in the structural syllabuses. However, this argument also needs to be tempered with our actual observations on the field. Without selection and gradation, the language teacher as well as the language learner is in a somewhat difficult position. Though the external world is unlimited in speech, what is given as input to a child is short and simple sentences, with little embedding and reflection (Sach et al. 1982). Sentence boundaries are well marked in speech addressed to young children (Broen 1972). The input is more generally given slowly and neatly to the child. The child in turn tries to attempt it in the same way and develops its grammatical and communicative competence. So, structural grading is also necessary for the development of grammatical competence, which is the foundation for further build up.


Here is an illustration from Tamil:

avan vi:TTukku taane: po:na:n? 'Did he go home only?

This kind of sentence raises some doubt about the subject matter under consideration in the sentence. If there is an explicit and strong interrogative intonation attached to the sentence, it would raise the question as to whether he went home or to some other place. If the interrogative intonation is not placed strong on the sentence, then the sentence could mean that the speaker of this sentence didn't care about the destination at all. It could mean that the speaker had no interest whatsoever in what the person referred to did or where he went.

Can a second language learner of Tamil decide the sense of such sentences merely with the knowledge of grammatical competence he has acquired while learning Tamil, using the methods and postulates of the generative grammarian? Unless the learner is exposed to two sets of rules, one for the grammatical competence and another for some sort of ethnography of speaking, he will not be able to correctly understand the meaning of such sentences. This overall competence may be described communicative competence. This communicative competence includes both grammatical competence and variable rules.


Chomsky (1965) talks of a homogeneous community: "Linguistic theory is concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-hearer in a completely homogeneous speech community." In 1975, he wrote that "in the real world there are no homogeneous speech communities" (Chomsky 1975:318). We all know that every speech community is always a heterogeneous one. For example, two members of a community may speak either two regional dialects if they belong to two regions of the same language community, or two caste dialects if they belong to two different castes. (The question of the identity of caste dialects across regions needs further investigation.) Moreover, an individual speaker's speech may also be heterogeneous. He may speak a regional dialect with a person belonging to the same region; he may speak a caste dialect with a person belonging to the same caste, and a standard or some other dialect with the speakers of other regions and castes. In addition he may have some control over the written variety and use it when he is in the classroom or other formal situations.


I would like to give another example from the Tamil situation to illustrate the complexity of language use and language competence in Indian contexts. The dialect system in Tamil may be described as follows: Northern dialect, central dialect, southern dialect, Nanjil dialect, western dialect, Brahmin dialect, 'standard' spoken Tamil dialect, and 'standard' written Tamil dialect. Tamil is a diglossic language. The spoken Tamil has six major regional dialects as listed above. And each region may have its own caste dialects, except in the case of the Brahmin dialect which is said to be similar in all the regions with less regional influences.

Variation in Tamil, thus, revolves around diglossia, standard vs. dialects, regional dialect vs. caste dialect, and register vs. slang. Such a situation, with different accentuations, is easily attested in many major languages of India. However, the Tamil diglossic situation is more widely studied, better marked and well defined than many other Indian languages.

Scholars have rightly pointed out that a second language teaching program in Indian languages, particularly in Tamil, should impart competence in both spoken and written varieties (Schiffman 1979, Annamalai 1980, Gnanasundaram 1980, and Rajaram 1980).


By spoken variety, we mean a standard spoken variety for purposes of classroom teaching and production and selection of language teaching materials. How do we define this standard spoken variety? Wolfram (1966) defined it as "a socially accepted variety and not the socially accepted variety." This suggests that there need not be one standard variety; there may be more than one variety that could be considered standard. As far as Tamil is concerned, the generally accepted standard spoken variety, the educated speaker's variety, is also a heterogeneous one. However, there is an agreement among the speakers of this variety that the standard spoken variety is somewhat nearer to the ordinarily written variety of Tamil.


The following assumptions seem to influence the teaching of this co-called standard variety as a second language.

Assumption 1. If the learner becomes competent in the standard spoken variety, he is able to listen to and speak with the native speakers.

Assumption 2. If the learner becomes competent in the standard spoken variety, the switch over from the spoken variety to the written variety (in a diglossic situation) is easier in terms of rules (Nadaraja Pillai, 1986).

Of these two assumptions the first one appears to be more questionable and needs revision. Let me explain why, based on the notion of speech networks.


It is useful to think of the speech communities as networks of social interactions or speech networks. People who use one variety are members of the same speech network. However, individuals have more than one variety based on the region, caste, etc. As we saw earlier, Tamil has six major regional dialects and many caste dialects. These function as networks that interlock in the sense that people use two or more varieties at the same time. Individuals may be part of more than one category and they function as networks interlocking each other. Their communicative competence is based on the extent of interlocked networks they belong to.

In the generative grammarians' view, speech is controlled by rules. But usage is variable, not absolute. However, as Schiffman points out, "speakers also possess a number of other rules that generate social or regional dialect forms, or are perhaps even part of the grammars of most speakers" (Schiffman 1980:193).


Consider the following example. The third person plural pronoun is /avarkaL/ 'they' in written Tamil. The following are some of the variations for this written Tamil form:


Of these the first form avanga is considered to be the standard spoken form.

The variations are part of the speaker's performance. However, the variations such as the above are either region or caste based. Variations are, thus, ascribed to specific factors. If this is so, then, the second language learner, who is exposed to the variety of the educated minority, may face problems in the actual situation. This is to be overcome through the use of suitable teaching strategies and materials. For example, we usually try to establish a correlation between avanga and avarkaL, and then stop with that correlation. However, we notice that a person of the central region may have difficulty in understanding the Nanjil variety or a person of the northern region may have difficulty in understanding a person belonging to the western region, even though all these would claim to be the native speakers of Tamil. For a second language learner, knowing avanga alone will not help. The experience shows that the second language learners of Tamil have problems with the correlation of these two forms. Many such errors for other correlations are easily attested (Nadaraja Pillai and Vimala 1981).

We, the course designers, material producers, and teachers, assume that because the learner has mastered the standard spoken variety, he has also understood, or he can understand, the uneducated people talk in face-to-face situations. The native speaker will definitely understand the second language learner's talk, but the second language learners will have difficulty in understanding the native speakers' talk! If our focus is on the second language learner's competence and performance, then, it is obvious that the grammatical competence alone, even when we establish a correspondence between the so-called standard spoken and written varieties, will not be adequate.

*** *** ***


Annamalai, E. 1980. A strategy for taching Tamil. In M.Israel, et al. (eds.) A Fetschrift for Professor M.Shanmugam Pillai Part I. Madurai: Prof. Shanmugam Pillai Felicitation committee. (pp. 269-274.

Broen, P. 1972. The verbal environment of the language learning child. Monograph of the American speech and Hearing Association. 17.

Chomsky, N.1965. Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Chomsky, N. 1975 Knowledge of language. In K.Gunderson(ed.) Language, Mind and Knowledge. Minneapolis (pp. 299-320)

Gnanasundaram, V. 1980 A Programme for teaching the formal and informal varieties nof Tamil. In M. Israel et al. (eds.) A Fetschrift for Prof. M.Shanmugam Pillai. Madurai: M.S.Pillai Felicitation committee. (pp. 275-282)

Hymes, D. 1971a. On communicative competence. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania.

Hymes, D. 1971b. Sociolinguistics and the Ethnography of speaking. In D. Aaronson and R.W. Rieber (eds.) Developmental Psycholinguistics and communication Disorders. New York: The New York Academy of Sciences ( pp. 197-200)

Nadaraja Pillai, N. 1986. A Guide for advanced learners of Tamil. Mysore: CIIL.

Nadaraja Pillai, N. and Vimala, S. 1981. Error Analysis. Mysore: CIIL.

Rajaram, S. 1980 An Intensive Course in Tamil. Mysore: CIIL.

Sach, S.J.; Browing, R. and Salerno, R. 1972. Adultís speech to Children. At the International Symposium on First language Acquisition, Florence.

Schiffman, H. 1979. A grammar of spoken Tamil. Madras: Christian Literature Society.

Schiffman, H. 1980. Some variable rules in Modern Tamil. In M.Israel et al. (eds.) A Fetschrift for Prof. M.Shanmugam Pillai. Madurai: Prof. M.S.Pillai Felicitation Committee (pp. 193-200).

Thirumalai, M. S. 1977. Language Acquisition, Thought, and Disorder. Mysore: CIIL

Widdowson H. G. 1973. Two types of communicative exercises. At the AILA/BAAL Seminar, Linguistics Section, Dept of English. Univ. of Lancaster.

Wolfram, W. A. 1966. A Sociolinguistic description of Detroit Negro speech, Washington D.C.: Centre for Applied Linguistics.

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N. Nadaraja Pillai, Ph.D.
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570006, India