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?


4 Answers 4


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. 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.


Etymology, a hyponym of Historical Linguistics that itself is a hyponym of formal linguistics, can assist language learning.

Atashpanjeh and Haseli Songhori, Etymological vs. Literal Teaching of Idiomatic Expressions in an EFL Context: No Difference in Retention of Idioms Constitutents, International Journal of Research in English Education (2020) 5:3

A growing body of evidence supports the advantage of application of etymology to learning L2 vocabulary and idiom learning (Bagheri & Fazel, 2010; Coryell, 2012; Zarei & Rahimi, 2012). Pierson (1989), for instance, proposed a pedagogy with etymology instruction at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The findings revealed that introducing etymology is an effective method in learning L2 idioms. The findings of Pierson’s study, of course, are not in line with the present study in which we could find no advantage for introducing the etymology of idioms.

Bagheri, M. S., &Fazel, I. (2010). Effects of etymological elaboration on EFL learners’ comprehension and retention of idioms. Journal of Pan-Pacific Association of Applied Linguistics, 14(1), 45-55. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Coryell, L. J. (2012). The effectiveness of etymological elaboration as a method of teaching idioms. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Department of Educational Theory and Practice. School of Education. University of Albany, State University of New York.

Zarei, A. A., &Rahimi, N. (2012). Idioms: Etymology, contextual pragmatic clues and lexical knowledge in focus. Germany: Lambert academic publishing.

Zolfagharkhani, The Effect of Etymology Instruction on Vocabulary Learning of Upper-Intermediate EFL Iranian Learners, Canadian Social Science Vol. 7, No. 6, 2011, pp. 1-9. DOI:10.3968/j.css.1923669720110706.180.

I quote from the "Review of Literature" on pages 3, 4.

      Pierson (1989) claims that etymological training could benefit second language instruction. The teacher and student, by becoming serious amateur etymologists, would find themselves more sensitive to the meaning of words and their relationships with other words from both history and other languages. The knowledge of these word relationships could contribute to what educational psychologists call meaningful learning, a quality of learning which is related to prior learning, and thus is more likely to be retained and generalized to other learning. According to Pierson, instruction in etymology could offer meaningful linguistic information. This information will be helpful for intermediate and advanced second language learners. Ilson (1983, as cited in Gu, 2003) identified four types of etymological information that can help the learner: (a) etyma and cognates; (b) morphological analysis of lexical units in terms of their constituent structure; (c)morphological analysis of lexical units in terms of processes of word formation; and (d) analysis of lexical units in terms of the cognitive procedures (e.g., metaphor) of their formation and development.
      Green (1996) asserts that study of Latin or Latin etymology by both native and non-native speakers can be justified on three levels: (a) the great amount of Latin in English language, (b) the psycholinguistic process of storing words, and (c) recent research on learning strategies. Bellemo (1999) in his article titled ‘‘Etymology and Vocabulary Development for L2 College Students’’ demonstrates that etymology may be a viable word attack strategy useful for a college level, heterogeneous reading class, irrespective of the student’s L1. S. Zukayee (personal communication, February 1, 2011) believes that etymology is the best method to strengthen learners’ command over English language. By using knowledge of familiar words, learners will soon master the secret of vocabulary building. One root word will open the door to mastery of English language. In a similar vein, Corson (1997, as cited in Bellemo, 2009) notes:

Pedagogical processes of analyzing words into their stems and affixes do seem important in academic word learning. These processes help to embody certain conscious and habitual metacognitive and metalinguistic information that seems useful for word acquisition and use. Getting access to the more concrete roots of Graeco-Latin academic words in this way makes the words more semantically transparent for a language user, by definition. Without this, English academic words will often remain “hard” words whose form and meaning appear alien and bizarre. So this kind of metacognitive development that improves practical knowledge about word etymology and relationships seems very relevant for both L1 [native English speaker] and L2 [non-native English speaker] development (pp. 707-708).

      Davoudi and Yousefi (2009) assert that using etymological approach can be considered as a shortcut.

Many words in English are made up of prefixes, suffixes, and roots which learner can come to recognize. By learning what the actual roots of the words mean, learner can increase his /her vocabulary at a high rate. They state that there are three important elements in etymology approach that is, prefix, suffix, and root. They note: Most of the prefixes and suffixes in modern English derived from old English, Latin, and Greek. They are so numerous that is impossible to list all of them. By learning strategic ones, you take another long stride towards improving your vocabulary. By combining your knowledge of roots with knowledge of prefixes and suffixes you can analyze a surprisingly large number of words’’ (pp.17-18).

      According to Farid (1985, p.7), learning roots can be helpful in two ways: first, when reading one comes across a new word containing the root or prefix, one will be helped in his/her efforts to guess what the word means. S/ he will be able to make a good guess by his/her knowledge of prefix or root meaning. Second, learning words in this way makes it easier to remember the definitions of new words. In other words, knowing prefix and root meaning is a good memory aid.It has been estimated that 60 percent of the English words in common use are made up partly or entirely of prefixes or roots derived from Latin and Greek. The value of learning prefixes and roots is that they illustrate the way much of language is constructed. Once learned, they can help learner recognize and understand many words without resorting to a dictionary. With one well-understood root word as the center, an entire ‘‘constellation’’ of words can be built up. Bellemo (2009) notes that moving along the word frequency continuum from more frequent to less frequent displays an increased percentage of Graco-Latin words, while the percentage of Germanic, monosyllabic words decreases. It is in the academic area that students will come across an influx of content specific vocabulary throughout the curriculum. Recognizing frequent roots and affixes that transfer among the discipline can support students as they make sense and attempt to retain the meaning of these deluge new words.
        Zhou (2010) contends that knowledge of frequently recurring roots, prefixes, suffixes, infixes when used in conjunction with context clues, can give students another important self-help technique to unlock the meanings of words. Students can be taught Greek and Latin stems and affixes that supply clues to meaning.When teachers give students a working stock of common Greek and Latin word parts and teach them to use these in combination with context revelation, they are helping them acquire meanings of many related English words. They are giving many of them a self-help technique through structural analysis. Rivers (1981) also, states that knowledge of lexical roots (etymological information and morphological origins) can assist in vocabulary development in that it helps students predicate or guess what a word means, elucidate why a word is spelt the way it is, and remember the word by knowing how its current meaning develops from its morphological roots. Students should learn to identify morphemes which recur in a number of words and which can help them to identify at least part of the meaning, thus assisting them in guessing from context the meaning of apparently new items (p.465).

I quote from the Conclusion on pages 7-8.

The data from this study indicate that students in experimental group significantly outperformed the students in control group in vocabulary learning through the etymology method. This finding is in line with previous research findings (i.e., Fekri, 2011) concerning the effect of etymology in enhancing vocabulary learning. In other words, the treatment given to the experimental group had affected this group to some extent. Therefore, the first null hypothesis stating that etymology strategy has no effect on vocabulary learning was rejected.

Bellomo, T. S. (1999). Etymology and Vocabulary Development for L2 College Students. TESL-EJ Journal, 4 (2), 1-7.
Bellomo, T. S. (2009). Morphological Analysis and Vocabulary Development: Critical Criteria. The Reading Matrix, 9 (1), 44-54.
Fekri, A. (2011). The Effect of Teaching Etymology Strategy on Learning Vocabulary by Iranian Intermediate EFL Learners. (Unpublished master’s thesis). Sabzevar Tarbiat Moallem University, Sabzevar, Iran.
Gu, P. Y. (2003). Vocabulary Learning in a Second Language: Person, Task, Context and Strategies. TESL-EJ, 7 (2), 1-25. Retrieved December 10, 2010 from http://www-writing.berkeley.edu/TESL-EJ/ej26/a4.html.
Pierson, D. H. (1989). Using etymology in the classroom. ELT Journal, 43(1), 57-63. doi: 10.1093/elt/43.1.57
Rivers, W. M. (1981). Teaching Foreign-Language Skills. University of Chicago Press.

  • the etymology of idioms has very little to do with either abstract or formal syntax, nor with reality in many if not most cases. Rubbish in Rubbish out, as they say. Well to be fair, "X in X out" is a pattern with interchangeable lexems (eg. X = "shit" or "blood"). While the structure could be explained via diachronic syntax, this requires its origin is known at all. The point about Latin has again very little to do with syntax, morpho-syntax at best, and shifts the problem to learning Latin. Basicly, "amateur etymology" does not square with "advanced learner".
    – vectory
    Sep 18, 2021 at 2:58

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