Cognitive linguists, like other linguists, study language for its own sake; they attempt to describe and account for its systematicity, its structure, the functions it serves and how these functions are realised by the language system. However, an important reason behind why cognitive linguists study language stems from the assumption that language reflects patterns of thought. Therefore, to study language from this perspective is to study patterns of conceptualisation. Language offers a window into cognitive function, providing insights into the nature, structure and organisation of thoughts and ideas. The most important way in which cognitive linguistics differs from other approaches to the study of language, then, is that language is assumed to reflect certain fundamental properties and design features of the human mind.
As we will see throughout this book, this assumption has far-reaching implications for the scope, methodology and models developed within the cognitive linguistic enterprise. Not least, an important criterion for judging a model of language is whether the model is psychologically plausible. Cognitive linguistics is a relatively new school of linguistics, and one of the most innovative and exciting approaches to the study of language and thought that has emerged within the modern field of interdisciplinary study known as cognitive science. In this chapter we will begin to get a feel for the issues and concerns of practising cognitive linguists. We will do so by attempting to answer the following question: what does it mean to know a language? The way we approach the question and the answer we come up with will reveal a lot about the approach, perspective and assumptions of cognitive linguists. Moreover, the view of language that we will finish with is quite different from the view suggested by other linguistic frameworks.
The cognitive approach also offers exciting glimpses into hitherto hidden aspects of the human mind, human experience and, consequently, what it is to be human.