Word-Chain Devices, Foreign Language Learning and Artistic Appreciation

After learning about the word-chain devices (Markov model), I realized that I am actually teaching Chinese under the influence of it unconsciously. A problem that most of my students are confronted with is that they have a really limited accumulation of adjectives and adverbs in Chinese which poses an obstacle during their writing compositions or trying to express their feelings. As they have already gain the sense of the basic syntax rules of Chinese, they know how to combine the words selected from each column into a grammatical Chinese sentence. The problem is that one of the column that is necessary for the combinatorial system is almost empty. In order to help them improving their opinion-expressing ability as soon as possible, what I am doing recently is that I would offer them three sets of antonyms expressing positive and negative attitudes per week. In this way, every time when they want to express their attitude, they can search the “positive expression column” or “negative expression column” in their mind, select the proper one and continue their combinations.

As a native Chinese speaker, associating with my personal experience of learning English and Korean, it seems that the more unskilled I am with a language, the word-chain devices worked more apparently and typically in my mind. When dealing with Korean conversation, I usually retrieve the “grammar formula” in my mind, select the proper words from different lists in my mind lexicon, then assemble them following the formula, or to say, the grammatical rules. While when speaking or writing in Chinese, I do will search in my mind lexicon to find the best vocabulary for my expression but the working process of the word-chain devices, or the more complexed assembling models, works in an unconscious way.

People following the synaptic rules not only can create sentences for daily communication, but can also create grammatically correct but meaningless sentences, which means that “Sentences can make no sense but can still recognized as grammatical.” (Steven Pinker,1994)The language as a medium to conveying information reaches different audiences with different contents. How Mark Twain parodied the romantic description of nature actually reminds me of the art appreciation things in human society. If I submit the poem These Lacustrine Cities of John Ashbery as my work in a writing test of a language course, I could hardly pass the exam. However when the poem is taught in the literature class as one of the most famous works of outstanding postmodernism poetry Ashbery, with the help of professor, everyone in the classroom seems to get what the writer is talking about. The separation between semantics and pragmatics somehow helps me to analyze this phenomenon in the way of artistic appreciation and criticizing. Marcel Duchamp holds an opinion that art will do what art will do. No matter what the object is put on exhibition, people who are standing around it will interpretive the object in an artistic way. To analyze this phenomenon in a analogical way of studying semantics and pragmatics, take the Bicycle Wheel of Marcel Duchamp as example, when such a wheel is seen on the road or in Wikipedia, the majority of us would recognize it simply as a part of a bicycle in a “context-free”way, which is somehow just like the “semantic” meaning of this object, as a normal industrial product. However, when being put in an art gallery with a name card of famous French artist Marcel Duchamp next to it, audiences together move into a context of modern art, the wheel is now regarded as a great absurdism work, an ikon expressing the sarcasm on the over-seperation of high art and mass art. The information saved in the object now is decoding in a typical “pragmatic” way. Shall we put ourselves into a professional artistic context in order to appreciate and criticize the art works or shall we just enjoy them in our personal contexts? From my perspective, when being told that the object is an “artistic work”, we get ourselves involved into the artistic context unconsciously, the wheel is not a wheel and the urinal is now a fountain.


Steven Pinker, “How Language Works.” Excerpt from: Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York, NY: William Morrow & Company, 1994: 83-123.

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Linguistics and Symbolic Systems: Key Concepts”