I am interested in the intersection between abstract, formal grammars/semantics of human language and the very concrete task of learning a new language. Are there any books whose presentation assumes readers have the former and attempts to achieve the latter?


3 Answers 3


A deleted user asked this question on r/linguistics.

In this answer, I'll substantiate that IPA and Phonetics can assist language acquisition. ValZho's comment is substantiated by research that I quote below.

It's not knowing IPA that is useful, it is learning IPA (and phonology) that gets you the benefits. By the time you have really grasped and learned IPA, you will have done something that is usually a big barrier to learning a foreign language: the ability to distinguish allophones; separating writing from speaking (this is why learning IPA is difficult—and what makes it useful). In my idiolect of English, for example, I can count at least 5 different sounds that are represented in writing by the single letter "t".

IPA can be extremely helpful, but only if there are good resources out there for the language you are trying to learn. I too want to learn Irish, but haven't really found any good source of IPA for Irish words/phrases.

LingProf comments

It's very useful, if combined with rudimentary knowledge of phonetics. Knowing what the sounds are, where they are articulated, and how they are articulated is essential knowledge, as is understanding concepts such as voicing, aspiration, nasalization, vowel length, etc.

Language teachers will often say things that are no help at all, such as "make it stronger, or softer, or lighter". Knowing what they sounds are and how to make them will make learning easier and give you more confidence in learning a new language.

This comment from a deleted user instantiates the counsel above.

The non-technical descriptions of sounds given in books are often based on some assumptions of shared dialect. If you don't share the (often UK "Received Pronunciation") dialect, those hints will actually lead you astray. IPA descriptions are (as much as possible) absolute, not relative to some other dialect.

Irish trí ("three") sounds sorta like "tree", but wiktionary gives this more specific IPA-based pronunciation: [tʲɾʲiː]. If you've studied IPA (and a bit of phonetics) you would know that the "t" is palatalized, the "r" is flapped and palatalized, and the vowel is long. That knowledge can help you both produce and hear the sound more accurately—knowing what you are listening for, and what distinctions matter, makes it easier to hear it.

Similarly with other languages I've studied, seeing the IPA with my eyes made it easier to train both ear and tongue, because I didn't have to decode what I was "supposed" to hear or "supposed" to say. I knew what the target was, which made getting to it easier.

I quote from p. 485 in Murray J. Munro and Tracey M. Derwing, Chapter 17 Phonetics and second language teaching research in Peter Assmann, The Routledge Handbook of Phonetics (2019).

Phonetic transcription in the language classroom

Teachers often ask whether phonetic transcription should be used in pronunciation classes. Abercrombie (1949) argued that pronunciation instructors can be effective without using transcription, and certainly, if they are not fully conversant and comfortable with transcription, they should not use it. Moreover, if learners have limited literacy skills, introducing another writing system is likely to confuse them. However, if the instructor has a good grasp of transcription, and the students are literate, then some use of IPA symbols may be advantageous, at least in languages such as English, which has a nontransparent orthography. Transcription is generally unnecessary for languages such as Finnish or Spanish, because their orthographic systems correspond very closely to their sound systems, at least at the phonemic level.


Not sure studying linguistics would help learn a language necessarily, but who knows. I believe all that is necessary to learn a language is some basic understanding or concepts such as:

  • Parts of speech (verbs, nouns etc)
  • How idiomatic language works
  • Principles of lexical systems (formal/informal registers, collocations)

Not sure if this answer helps! If the goal was to teach a language not learn a language, I would have recommended this:

Linguistics for Language Teachers: Lessons for Classroom Practice Book by Sarah J. Shin and Sunny Park-Johnson

  • 2
    From personal experience, it absolutely helps. Having a good grasp of ‘light’ linguistics (like the ability to easily analyse the constituents of a clause, quickly create mental syntax trees, grasp the interaction between phonemes and allophones, have experience with the different ways different languages organise their morphology, etc.) is a huge help in learning new languages. Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 16:00

Studying linguistics requires formal linguistics in some capacity. Learning a language does require, or is essentially linguistics, upto the wholy grail that is fundamental question of linguistics, "what is language".

Linguistics serves to explain that school grammar is often very opinionated, while linguistics tends to avoid proscriptivism, seeing the native speaker as empirical proof for the extensive definition of a given language. This is common knowledge in the field. (Even the foreign syntax errors of an advanced foreign speaker could thus be justified, and although this may be questionable, the target for native level profficiency is questionable as well for a pluricentric question like English).

Also, if linguistics is not commonly taught in language learning classes, studying linguistics outside the class room implies several benefits. It provides second opinions on various matters controversial or innovative, and it offers occasionally tangents with other languages that would one would otherwise not take into comparison. It so offers an opportunity to study scientific writing styles, which could work in the class room as well.

Historial Linguistics and other denominally linguistic subjects form subjects at an introductory level in individual university language programs (Anglicistic and so on), which implies that it is a bare necessity to acquire expertise at the native speaker level. Starting early to obtain insights can be well advised for an advancing foreign language learner, clearly, at least when they study in those programs. It is very likely not recommendable for beginning language learners, though, because it often requires introduction to multiple languages, which would increase the cognitive load. An understanding of Lexicography first of all should be tangential to the use of dictionaries, which may be achieved on the go.

Albeit, abstract or formal syntax on the other end are highly competitive fields with a lot of overturn in the recent history, and the field is overall very young, barely even mature. The topics that it is concerned with are in many cases isolated exceltions to the general rule. Instead of basic grammar deriving from formal syntax it looks much rather like formal syntax refers to basic grammar as the premisses. It might be useful for a teacher to have some familiarity with the subject, and professionals from the field would be well equiped to approach language learning and translation subjects. I like to read @greg, @lemontree, etc. for example, also @jlawler for more practical approaches of course.

I am not aware of a book, though. It would seem that the theoretical nature of formal syntax is inherently at odds with teaching particular language fundamentals, because it would immediately become practical. I imagine it's a bit like so-called pure maths or theoretical Programing Languages; Writing a compiler is a vocational subject in Computer Science (ie. lexer, parser, translator, assembler), but this is not equivalent to modifying or even designing a language; Topics in abstract algebra and the like are conceptually similar as well.

At least an introduction to set theory, quantifiers and formal logic should be part of the common curriculum, which should get you close to Lambda Calculus, but such can also be found in introductions to Semantics which, yes, should be part of any university level language programs. Unfortunately this suffers from the syntacticians common wisdom that Semantic is Inherently Underspecified. Therefore it would not be wise to treat syntax too far away from the syntax-semantics interface.

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