Descriptive and Prescriptive Approaches in Language Acquisition

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While the descriptive approach is more democratic, the prescriptive one is more authoritarian and strict. It requires clear and exact rules to be applied to the language and all the speech community to follow them unquestioningly. For example, let’s say the question is whether it is acceptable to use the contraction form (for example, “it’s” instead of “it is”) when writing. A person who prefers the prescriptive approach is likely to say that the contracted form is not acceptable in writing; it is, however, may be acceptable when speaking.

On the other hand, a person who takes the descriptive approach would probably say “it depends. ” It depends on what kind of document is being written. It would be better not to use the contracted form in case a business letter or a legislative act is being written. However, if it is a personal letter or a piece of literature, using “it’s” is perfectly acceptable. But in this case the target audience is to be carefully considered.

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In book The Columbia Guide to Standard American English Kenneth Wilson (1993) presents one more way of explaining the descriptive and prescriptive approaches to language.

Wilson outlines that the descriptive approach describes and explains how language is used and what a great number of variations it offers to be used. He also presents the specific attributes of accuracy and an “un-retouched picture of this usage, warts and all” as the main features of the descriptive approach. The prescriptive approach, Wilson explains, will require usage of one certain variation instead of any others no matter how good they are and how many of them there might be.

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For the prescriptive approach it is always clear what is the most appropriate, what is likely to be acceptable, and which is correct and incorrect.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Descriptive Approach

The first strength of the descriptive approach is that it gives a person an opportunity to choose what words, phrases and their variations to use in each particular situation. Analyzing and describing a certain usage by means of the descriptive approach, we take a look at the history, origin, contemporary practice, and evolution of the particular neologism.

For example, describing some new world we explain not only where it appeared and what its grammar qualities are , but the context in which it is usually used, variants of its meaning, more and less appropriate usages, how it was changing with time, in what cases it is used now, what it stands for, where it may be used. This is one of the most important strengths of the descriptive approach. It allows not only to use certain word in this particular context, but to transfer it to other ones. Explaining one word we get acquainted no only with that word, but with fields, industries, sciences it is used in.

One more advantage of the descriptive approach is that it explains motivations and circumstances of human speech. This helps to understand certain meanings of language better, to analyze how it is being influenced by other cultures and nations, how this influence changes the way we communicate. As Dwight Bolinger stated in his book Language: the Loaded Weapon (1980), in the realm of language and thinking, the premise is that “every language has a structure that must somehow influence the way its speakers view the world.

” The descriptive method, hence, helps us to take a look and analyze the way other people view the world. That is one more advantage of description. Many proverbs, idiomatic and slang expressions we use in our everyday speech, are used due to the descriptive method. The descriptive approach allows us to go into the history, etymology and, possibly, the sociology of speech and language when explaining the meaning of some expression. This approach also allows us to learn and analyze why exactly people use certain phrases and words in this or that particular way.

As for the weaknesses and disadvantages of the descriptive approach, one of the most important of them is that analyzing some usage or word by means of this approach we may get a very wide and long interpretation. Some ambiguity and non-uniformity may appear in such a description. And, surely, it may appear that the explanation is not too concrete, exact and correct. One more disadvantage of the given approach is that it gives much freedom and many variants to choose from. This, consequently, may potentially cause confusion among students of language who require their learning to be more rigorous and clearly structured.

Another weakness is that some overzealous descriptivists tend not only to describe the usage of language , but try to take the initiative of changing and developing. Such scientists are likely to change and develop through encouraging the “death” of old-fashioned usages or those which they consider irrelevant in a society which has immersed itself in the technological progress. They believe it is their duty to proceed and chop off everything what in their opinion is no fashionable or appropriate any more. (Descriptive and Prescriptive Grammar)

The last weakness of the descriptive approach is in practicality. For instance, both electronic and printed dictionaries need space to accommodate extensive descriptions. It is not easy to define the limit and boundaries for descriptions of words and phrases. It becomes a question whether regional and international variations should be described in a dictionary. The question is also how the meaning of the word should be presented: from its historical perspective, from its social context, or just its modern usage.

It is difficult and takes much effort and time to describe words. Language is changing constantly and consistently, all these changes should be described and it is really difficult to entail all the descriptions of all the frequent changes.

The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Prescriptive Method

Surely, very appreciated would be a definite answer to all the questions relating to grammar and vocabulary. Everyone appreciates being told, once and for all, what is correct and incorrect in how we speak and write. This is where the strength of the prescriptive method is. It is clear, definitive, and precise. Much attention should be paid to the prescriptive method in our world where change is inevitable and takes place in language daily, where communication is the key to efficient commerce and governance, education and security. A great number of changes in language may lead to ambiguity in grammar, vocabulary, and even pronunciation. In this case we have to return to a more traditional approach which will help to clarify everything. The second strength of the prescriptive method is that it is easier to teach.

The exact knowledge of what is acceptable, correct, and appropriate gives an opportunity to proceed to other aspects of language which are as important. Society is organized because there exist clear and categorical laws that govern all the aspects of life. Language is similar: it also needs to be governed in order to be clear and easy-understandable. That is why systematically enforced rules with very little exception which leave only minimal room for misinterpretation are needed in the language. Such rules, understood and accepted, will help us to improve our communication, to make it simple, easy and clear.

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Descriptive and Prescriptive Approaches in Language Acquisition. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

Descriptive and Prescriptive Approaches in Language Acquisition

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