What types of knowledge do you need in order to use language? You know A LOT more than you think! From abstract rules, to how to remove ambiguity in funny sentences, an ocean of knowledge is available to you every second of your day. Learn more about the ease with which you do amazing computations when you speak, and be proud of yourself!


Hello, and welcome to Language with Chu. If you haven’t watched the last two parts, please do so, so that you understand a bit better where we’re coming from, and getting to.

This part will be about the knowledge that is implicit, all the stuff that we need to know in order to use language. And it’s nothing short of a miracle, actually. So all these things, remember, are things that you’re not even aware of most of the time, okay? They’re implicit.

First you need to know sounds. And by sounds I don’t mean just /a/, /b/ etc, but also which ones correspond to your language, and how to combine them. You have all kinds of little rules in your head. For example, if I tell you “opened” and “looked”, both are the past tense of those verbs, but “opened” sounds like a “d”, the “d” at the end, while “looked” is actually a “t” sound. But you never thought about it, maybe, because obviously it’s written with “ed” at the end. Those have to do with sound combinations, what your language allows you to do. So you have a ton of rules just for that, for sounds.

Then you have a ton of rules of what I call “encyclopedic meaning“, because usually definitions in a dictionary are very simple, but they don’t convey all the subtleties and all the meanings of a word. Say the word “open”: you can open a door, open the closet, open a drawer, open a book, open your mind, open up with somebody, etcetera. There are a hundred of expressions with the word “open” that may not be in a dictionary, but you know perfectly well what they mean, and you use them perfectly well, and in a variety in multiple ranges of scenarios too. Okay.

Then you have knowledge about the word structure: if I tell you the word “teacher”, you know that it comes from the verb “to teach” and that the “er” means “a person who does something”, right? A teacher is a person who teaches. But what about “bestseller”? Is it a person who “best sells”? No. And what about a “villager”? Is it a person who “villages”? No. So, even though you saw certain patterns like in “teacher”, “carpenter”, “hairdresser”, etc., you already have knowledge of exceptions, basically.  Of structures that are similar, but which don’t mean the same.

Then you have, based on word structure as well… you also have to expand into word order: in English, sentences go Subject + Verb + Object. So, if I tell you… a famous one for linguists is “Dog bites man” on a newspaper headline, for example. It wouldn’t necessarily make the news but what would make the news is “Man bites dog” because it’s more unusual. And you know which one is the subject and which one the object just from English’s word order. In languages like Hungarian, for example, you don’t have that at all, so you’d have to come up with other… you have to use other bits and bobs of the language to know who the subject is and who the object is.

And then you also have idioms: if I tell you, “He kicked the bucket”, either I’m talking about a janitor, say, who got really angry and kicked his bucket, or in most cases, you know exactly what I mean, right? It means “to die”.

Then there is the fact that you have to have these patterns —all these patterns in your head, thousands of them— and the abstract rules that go with them.  Say the subject comes before the object, etc. and with just a few elements you form an infinite amount of sentences. It’s very likely that the sentence that I just uttered was never “invented” before. Some sentences are repeated and are very common, but for the most part, we can produce an infinite amount of sentences, with an infinite length, even, and still be understood. And nobody really knows how we do that, but it’s one of the nifty things about language, that with a few elements you can keep going on and on and on, just like I am now.

Okay, then you have the sentence structure. Like I said on the previous video, if I tell you “the woman standing next to you smiled”, did you smile, or did the woman smile? You know immediately that it’s the woman, even though “you” is right next to “smiled”. You just know how the thing works, and you understand the concepts in your head, and you can follow a conversation without any trouble.

Other examples are found often in newspapers, and they make for funny titles. I was looking for some earlier, and there is: “Students cook and serve grandparents”. There are two meanings there, and you got immediately what the right one was, but the other one sounds kind of… not too cool, right? Here’s another one: “Drunk gets nine years in violin case”. Obviously, it’s not the violin case, it’s a legal case, right? Or “Iraqi head seeks arms” obviously is the arms as weapons, right? [And the “head” as leader”.] So, all those little things make up for funny ambiguities and silly titles, but you know exactly how to use them. Immediately, you know how to recognize them.

And then finally there is “contextualization cues” which is anything you need to know about, say, for example, pronouns. In many languages, you have different pronouns according to the age of the person. Or even if I just tell you simply “you saw them” or “he saw them”. You know who “he” is, and you know who “they” are (“them”). Otherwise you couldn’t understand that sentence, and I know you know. That’s why I’m using these pronouns.

So, basically, if you combine all of this with the knowledge about your environment that you need, which is a lot… You need to read cues all the time (nonverbal communication). You need to know others, you need to know how others think more or less, you need to know who you’re talking to. You need to know everything about the world that you can know, from gravity to how to buy potatoes at a supermarket. Anything, everything that you know, it weighs more than an entire encyclopedia in your head. And yet, you just use it as if it was nothing. You take language for granted most of the time.

So I’ll finish with this: if you ever think that you’re too dumb, too old or whatever to learn any new language (or any new skill, really), just remember how much you know about language, and with how much ease you use it without realizing it. If you’ve managed to learn your mother tongue and anything else in life, you can tackle your next project, no problem! You’re going to be able to, because any time we acquire a complex skill such as language, we’re picking from all kinds of areas (physical, mental, and social) to perform all kinds of functions. And we have a ton of abilities that we don’t even remember we have or acknowledge that we have or notice that we have.

So you’re just a walking little Einstein (we all are) when it comes to language. And yeah, to me it’s like magical. It’s amazing. The richness of language is unbelievable, and we often take it for granted just like we do for most of our other capacities, or even the parts of our…. how our body works as a whole.

Thank you for watching, for leaving comments and questions and likes and for subscribing, and see you soon for more on language!