Form, Meaning and Use
Language is an amazing thing, it gives us the ability to communicate and share our ideas and experiences with others. Understanding the connections between form, meaning and use helps learners develop a sense of how a language works and become more effective communicators.
Expert speakers know and use many grammatical forms, they understand the meanings of these forms and use them for effective communication.
We shouldn’t forget this; language is for communication. This is the main reason most people learn a language – to communicate with others.
The standard approach that grammar books take is to present a form and its uses. Rules are provided so students can memorize when to use each form. This is all well and good if you need to memorize some structures and pass a test, but for many learners this meaning-neglecting approach misses the main point of their study and learners have difficulty expressing themselves.
Having knowledge of forms and their uses is helpful, but to be truly proficient in a language, this is not enough. It is important that learners do not underestimate the importance of meaning.
How we communicate
I have an thought in my head. I want to share this thought with another person. We can easily do this through language. When we communicate choose words to express our thoughts.
- It all starts with meaning. The meaning is in the speaker’s head.
- The speaker chooses forms that represent this meaning.
- They use these forms.
- The listener hears the language.
- They recognize the forms that the speaker is using.
- They understand the meaning of these forms in this situation.
If all goes well, the speaker has successfully shared their thoughts with the listener.
In terms of communication, meaning is crucial. Without meaning, language is pointless.
Pretty simple stuff, but how do we apply the ideas of form, meaning and use to language learning?
The form-meaning connection
As children, we develop strong connections between forms and meanings. In short, we learn what words mean. And this is all words, from vocabulary to grammatical words.
I remember in school, teachers told us that we should not say, “Can I go to the bathroom?” It is correct to say, “May I go to the bathroom?” They tried to give us a rule for when to use a form. It failed. Everyone I know still says, “Can I go to the bathroom?” because it makes sense to do so. There is a strong form-meaning connection that we developed as children by being exposed to many uses of the word “can”, and this meaning applies to this situation. When communicating, meaning is important. We often ignore form-usage rules.
However, with a second language, many books are all about form-usage rules. So, developing good form-meaning connections often doesn’t get enough attention. In many books, the focus is on “correct usage”. And as a result, learners may often know what correct usage is when they do a test, but many have trouble putting sentences together and communicating.
It is important to develop a good understanding of the forms and what they mean.
Learning in context
When learners experience authentic language in use, the first step is to recognize the forms. When learners recognize forms, they can think about how the form and meaning are connected and how it applies to the situation. The language should simple enough for learners to be able to decode the meaning in context. This is often referred to as comprehensible input. When learners understand the overall meaning of the words in context, they can then guess the meanings of forms they don’t know or are unsure of.
When learners are unfamiliar with the meaning of a form, a resource such as Real Grammar: Understand English. Clear and simple. can be used to help them see how the form relates to other forms they know and see the meaning that it adds to sentences. Sometimes learners may be completely unsure of what a form means. Sometimes the use doesn’t fit with what they thought the form meant. In either situation, they can then make some guesses about what it might mean, then consult the book for a quick explanation and more examples to help them pinpoint a clearer meaning of the form.
Once learners better understand the core meaning, they can use their knowledge to help them decode the meaning when hear or read the form being used in other situations. Thinking about the use of the form and its core meaning helps learners see why people choose to use it.
Raising awareness of forms
The forms exist, but there are no guarantees that a learner will notice them and think about their meanings. There are often forms in a learner’s L2 that don’t exist in their L1. So, learners may not give them much attention as they don’t see their value.
The learner can communicate without the form in L1, so it is hard for them to apply the form when communicating in L2. They focus more on the meaning, so they often choose words that get the general meaning across, but speak in an unnatural way that is more difficult for listeners to understand because it is missing several grammatical forms or features.
Looking into these forms by presenting them in class or reading about them allows learners to be aware that they exist, think about their meanings and discover why they are useful parts of the language. This improves the learner’s knowledge of the language and ability to communicate. When the learner understands why a form is useful by understanding its meaning, they are more inclined to use it themselves. Traditional grammar often focuses on usage rules and remembering what is the “correct” form. However, understanding how the form improves communication gives learners far more reason to want to apply it to the language they use.
For this reason, it is important to use a book that is not too prescriptive, so learners can understand the flexible nature of language. Use a book that emphasizes learning the meanings of the forms and how they are used.
Well-chosen examples can pinpoint the differences between the form in question and other forms, which allows learners to develop a stronger sense of the core meaning of the form and the ways this core meaning is often applied in context.
Once learners are aware these exist, they are easier to notice in real-life context, and because the learner is developing knowledge of the core meaning, they will deepen this knowledge every time they encounter the form.
Real-life communication: forms are chosen, not prescribed.
Learners often rely on translation rules that convert L1 features to L2. But it doesn’t work well. We often can’t simply say that when you say X in L1, use Y in L2. The two languages express meaning in different ways.
It’s not a matter of just using different words. Learners studying English need to look at the situation from an English-speaking perspective and make choices that present the meaning clearly in the English way.
Many aspects of grammar are choices, such as the choice of tense, choice of modal verbs (can/could, will/would etc.) and the choice of prepositions (in, on, at, to, for etc.) We choose these grammatical features because they help us express the intended meaning. And these are the features that learners often find difficult.
Sometimes learners aren’t sure which structure to use, or use language in a way that is hard to understand or ambiguous. This may indicate that they don’t know the core meaning of the structure, or that they might be unaware of related structures that would express this meaning with more clarity. At this point learners can look at how the form is used by English speakers.
By looking at a range of examples learners can find the core meaning of the grammatical feature that always holds true. It is important that they go deeper and understand the meaning. Understanding the meaning behind the form allows them to understand the connection between form and use. They can then explore ways of using the feature in different contexts to express a range of ideas.