Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Language and Discourse

There is no simple correlation between the set of possible sentences and the set of possible statements. Michel Foucault has perhaps been the most active exponent of the difference, suggesting, in fact, that these sets are defined by altogether different operations. Sentences are possible or impossible within the order of language, while statements are possible or impossible within the order of discourse. The crucial difference here is the role of knowledge.

Now, in one sense, knowledge is essential to all language. What defines a "discourse", however, is the degree of specialization. If we define "style" in the simplest possible terms, namely, the choice and combination of one's words to achieve particular effects, then we can already see how the acquisition of knowledge (scientific competence) is an acquisition of stylistic mastery. After all, one learns not just the meaning of a set of specialized words (vocabulary), but also the suitability of more colloquial expressions, the necessity of illustration with concrete examples, the demand for formal expression in statistics and formulae. As Foucault points out, part of the style of a discipline also lies in a particular "play of metaphor". While it is certainly not the whole story, these stylistic elements (from vocabulary, to context sensitivity, to figurative language) help to define a field of research and limit participation in it.

For students working on the basis of English as a first language, the task of acquiring scientific certification is largely one of passing from a generalized linguistic compentency to a specific discursive style. In Foucault's terminology, the idea is to master (if always partially) a particular "enunciative modality", which constitutes part of the "discursive formation" of a field. Most fields also depend on a selected linguistic competence, of course. Thus, some fields are difficult to work in without a working understanding of French or German. But for the very great majority of academic disciplines, English is the only real linguistic prerequisite for any serious participation in research.

For students working with English as a second language, or as a foreign language, there are two immediate challenges where others have only one. Or rather, the division of tasks comes into starker focus. (Most students with English as a first language need to improve their linguistic competences during their studies, even after entering a PhD programme; but their improvement is less noticable here and more often attributable to practice than concerted study). It is often possible to structure this task in accordance with the specific demands of the field. As a start, I will suggest that students make lists of words that are often used in the writing of their chosen discipline, and that they then learn these words, their grammar, and their etymologies. This means looking them up in a good dictionary (The Oxford English Dictionary is good). A slightly more difficult task is to try to determine a list of words that is rarely or never used to name particular phenomena. What kind of economist you are will depend on how you use the word "capital", for example.

Learning how to construct appropriate expressions within the specific academic discourse you want to work in begins with constructing sentences that employ its vocabulary. The good news is that a discourse generally has fewer words than a language. The bad news, of course, is that they are "hard".

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Coming Soon

This blog will deal with issues that arise from the attempts of non-native English speaking researchers to communicate their results in a research environment largely dominated by the English language. Its aim is not to bemoan the current situation but to make the best of it. While I am trained as a philosopher, I have come to think of myself as a somewhat specialized English teacher.

I want to use this blog as a regular column on topics spanning from details of English grammar to intricacies of academic style. Since we are now working under 'postmodern conditions', this means figuring out how to write either reconstructively or deconstructively, or sometimes both, but always critically. Whether one wants to represent the object of one's research, or 'depresence' its subject, one's problem, when writing, is one of attaining an effective style, of finding one's footing in the crisis. The current crisis of European science, I'd argue, is conditional on our ability to use the English language, especially here on the Continent.

I should stress that I think of crisis not as something to be avoided, but something one must always, very carefully, try to achieve in one's writing. It amounts simply to producing texts that are capable of critique--that distinctively 'academic' stylistic virtue. This, however, can mean many things.