Language is more than a list of words. Language conveys a whole system of thought, transmitted in a symbolic network of form and meaning. Dictionaries and grammars, indispensable as they are, capture only isolated words and phrases. But human beings speak to each other in conversations, especially in stories which have a broader narrative structure, a beginning setting actors, actions, climax, and resolution. Many argue that narratives are a fundamental and universal reflection of human thought (Bruner 1986, Berman, Slobin and Aksu-Koc 1994, Linde 1994, van Dijk and Kintsch 1983).
Many aspects of language emerge only in connected speech. Discourse reveals not just intonation and mood particles, but also variations in word order, in topicalization, and the relations of time and verb aspect. Connected speech relies on cohesion. We use pronouns, classifiers and conjunctions selectively, to indicate what was said before (through anaphoric reference) , old information which the speaker should be familiar with. This is often the subject of the sentence. New information is also highlighted, often in an object phrase. Speakers also preview what will come later (through cataphora) (Chen 1986 a, b, 1987, Li and Thompson 1981).
No one can learn a language memorizing words alone. Teaching students only slowly pronounced words in isolation actually damages their ability to decode the rapidly pronounced phrases which even babies hear in their first language. In addition, textbooks and prescriptive grammars also often convey outdated, inaccurate, or overly simple information.
Examining recordings of how people actually speak often shows a dramatically different picture. Students spend hours learning the grammar of the full English passive, 'this duck was roasted by grandma'. But full passive is actually rare and highly marked, in less than 1% of spoken sentences. Foreign students of Mandarin are taught to use a special noun classifier for every noun, ben ¢D" for books, zhang ¡Ói for tables etc. But 40% of the Mandarin speakers told a Pear Story using only the general ge passive. Often a noun phrase is grammatical without a classifier, as in 'the boy riding the bike' qi chezi de xiaohai' o1¡LR?l ao ?p¡Lk "A . But speakers also used the general ge classifier even for nouns such as hats and bicycles which teaching grammars say must take a specific classifier. In fact, many speakers followed an unconscious information theory principle: they used a specific classifier the first mention of the object, and a general classifier after its identity was clear (Erbaugh 1986, 2002). Even foreign students of Mandarin follow this information processing principle, without being explicitly taught (Polio 1994).