linguistics in the classroom
This morning I had a discussion with my five-year-old granddaughter about believing in things. She believes in Jack Frost, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and Rapunzel. I explained why no human could have 14-foot-long hair like Rapunzel, not even the Sikhs who never cut their hair. As for Santa Claus, I told her I had never believed in him, except for fun. She was comfortable believing differently from me: “Some people believe in things, and some don’t,” she said.
She mentioned that she was afraid of “monsters,” and I asked her what she meant by that word. She brought up bats and walking mummies. As for the mummies, we agreed that they exist, but they don’t walk, so they are not worth worrying about. Regarding bats, her fear was based on the fact that “We can’t see them,” although I could inform her that if she were in the right place at the right time, she could indeed see bats. It is important for all of us, not only children, to clarify what we believe in and to investigate what we are afraid of. We made some progress through semantics this morning.
The Supreme Court will shortly rule on the constitutionality of gay marriage, which requires a definition of the word “marriage,” including whether the addition of the word “gay” to a standard definition redefines or simply clarifies the institution itself.
Dennis Baron has reviewed the Supreme Court’s use of dictionaries on his blog The Web of Language, including an instance when a liberal and a conservative Justice used the same dictionary definition to support opposing points of view. He also references the definition of “militia,” which drove decisions having to do with the right to bear arms.
I wish we would all agree on the definition of the term “Founding Fathers,” because this term leads directly into the word “Constitution” which is the bedrock of conservative judicial thinking these days. There were Unitarians and agnostics among the Founding Fathers who would not recognize opinions imposed upon them today when conservatives want to win a point by referencing them.
No matter what they do on the Supreme Court, we can keep a close eye on definitions in our daily lives.
Did you know this was endangered languages week? I didn’t, but I’m glad it’s happening. With all the alarming news that has hogged the headlines over the past few months, endangered languages have sunk to a lower rung of our consciousness, mine anyway. So it’s time to stop and think for a moment about the many benefits of preserving endangered languages:
1. Every language embodies a system of family and governmental relationships, titles, and rules. Nobody has gotten either system right yet, and we can learn a lot from each other. These systems disappear with the language.
2. Every language uses a certain set of sounds, which express themselves in everything from lullabies to swear words. These help us understand the human brain, and our physical capabilities.
3. Can you imagine a world in which there was no longer a ”Rock-a-Bye Baby,” or an “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” not to mention, “To be or not to be” which other people could understand? Literature and music has been composed in every tongue, whether the culture is literate or not.
4. More than one set of experiments has proven that knowing more than one language improves our method of learning everything else as well, and develops the brain.
5. Extinguishing language means extinguishing identity, relegating certain groups to inferior status. This goes against our principles of self-worth and democracy.
6. Now. If only the Spanish-, Greek-, and French-speaking people I know would answer me in Spanish, Greek, or French when I address them in their native tongue. The United States not only does not foster multilingualism, it mutes the tongues of people who immigrate. It annoys the hell out of me that I cannot practice my second, third, and fourth languages with people who live around me. The less they respond in their native tongue, the less I hear their native languages, and the quicker I lose contact with them.
7. We embrace diversity in all else, why not in language? There is a virtue unto itself of diversity.
Endangered Languages Week 2013 – Here is a weeklong celebration of same in England, if any of you happen through this week.
Celebrating our Sounds, Signs and Songs
SOAS, Russell Square, London
20-28 May 2013
Endangered Languages Week 2013 will present a variety of workshops, talks, films, demonstrations, debate, and more. Events include:
- ELDP workshop on technology and African languages.
- APLL6 conference on Austronesian and Papuan Languages and Linguistics
- Talks and seminars:
- Caroline Kerfoot: ‘Multilingualism as epistemic resource: rethinking ‘languages’ in educational policy’
- Kearsey Cormier on Sign languages
- Henrik Bergqvist:‘The problem of accounting for TAME and related expressions in the context of language documentation and description’
- Catherine Ingram on music and language documentation
- Sarah Ogilvie on web technologies and endangered languages
- Peter Austin: ‘And still they speak Dieri. Language revitalisation in northern South Australia’
- ELAR Open Day, including:
- Film Day: films on/in endangered languages
The full programme of events will appear here soon!
All events are free of charge and open to anyone who is interested in languages.
My students hate peer review, at least the way it is traditionally presented. I don’t like it either. Students are not skilled enough to analyze each other’s papers well, even when the peer review is tightly targeted.
My students love individual conferences.
I combined them into one activity which would be suitable for a class of 20 or less.
1. Students are divided into groups of three or four. If it is appropriate, they are grouped by area of interest or similarity of subject.
2. The students email each other their essays and, using Track Changes, each student comments on the essays of the two or three other members of their group. I do the same for each student.
3. Instead of class, the students attend conferences with the professor. These should be long enough to have a good discussion, say, 20-30 minutes, so more than one class period is needed to accommodate this exercise.
4. The conference begins with each student giving comments on each other student’s essay. It usually becomes apparent where the weak points are; often the students’ comments are similar to mine, which also strengthens their trust in me as a judge of their essays, and thrills me as well. NOTE: It is usually not necessary to even mention this, because students generally don’t want to hurt each other, but if a criticism is too harsh, the commenter should be reminded to say something positive about the piece.
5. The rest of the conference is spent discussing how to improve the essay, what sources would be useful, and, if there is time, doing some pointed revision.
This exercise proved very popular. It substitutes class time (quantity) for focused attention (quality), and resulted in a higher comfort level for the students, and better essays. It is difficult to judge the efficacy of class activities, but this one immediately yielded better work.
Naming things is an important concept in linguistics. People have cute, or crazy, or insulting names for people and things in their lives, and that is an area for productive study. Grandmother names are my present fixation — I am called Granna. I remember the struggle after 9/11 to find a name for the event that had just happened. In the end, we gave up and just use the date of a unique event which falls outside of our comprehension.
In the classroom context, knowing students’ names establishes intimacy and dignity, lessening the distance between teacher and student. I have 20 students this semester, and it took me about two weeks to get everyone’s name right. Last semester I had 60 and that also took about two weeks, even if some of them were Chinese and their names were just sounds to me.
Michael Sandel, the teacher of the legendary Justice course at Harvard, author of a book by the same name, has around a thousand students in this classes. He has an assistant pass the microphone to individuals, and before beginning the question-and-answer, he asks the student’s name, then continues, using the student’s first name. Though this is not true closeness, the moment of naming brings immediacy to the discourse.
Placards or name cards can be placed in front of the student so that a teacher can access the name without memorizing it. If you have access to photographs of the students, that helps. Memorization is made more difficult if the students switch seats or the seats are configured differently from class to class. This mixing up of seating avoids the formation of cliques, but makes it more difficult to memorize names.
Students sometimes work in groups, and if they are to make a report or otherwise present themselves as a unit to the rest of the class, it is amusing and bonding to have them choose a name for their group.
I get to know all of my students’ names (they inform me that this is rare, which shocks and upsets me), but when I run into them on campus the next semester or year I have forgotten them. I remember their faces and their papers, but not their names. Perhaps a psychologist or an expert on brain function and memory can explain that one!
EXERCISES: Not exactly exercises, but a listing of aids:
Give yourself a couple of weeks to memorize names
Have students name their groups
In large classes either have the students announce their name or have a name tag or placard.
Use photographs to help memorize names
Most of the argument is about the singular “they,” but the singular “you” also has an interesting genesis, and this article in The Economist tells the story, or at least part of the story.
The article concludes that social change has brought about this language change, though it does not draw any conclusions about why social change, meaning egalitarianism, did not also destroy the familiar “tu” in French, Spanish, and Italian, and the familiar “du” in German. What was it about English social change that was tied so tightly to language? That’s just something to think about.
We should watch our gun language. The New York Times has an article today, “In Gun Debate, Even Language Is Loaded,” documenting the pervasive gun references in our language. I speak six languages, and in thinking about each, I believe the article is correct — we have far more expressions, verbs, and nouns which come from gun culture than other languages do. It would be interesting to compare American English to British English and other World Englishes in this regard, too.
The parents from Newtown made the statement yesterday that they were in the gun debate for the long haul. Legislation can help, but the bigger changes have to come from the bottom up. There has to be a cultural change before this violence begins to subside. Just as we changed our language regarding race and gender, we might begin to change the national obsession with guns by changing our language. The first step to doing that is to increase our awareness of how often we use military and gun terms in our everyday speech.
A consistent mistake made by my students is using “everyday” instead of “every day.” “everyday” is an adjective, as in “That is an everyday concern of mine.” The other is a noun with a modifier, as in “Every day I brush my teeth.”
While on an unrelated Internet quest (looking for the website which best lays out the rules for use of prepositions), I landed on www.grammar.net which provided the following advice: “Although ending a sentence with a preposition is considered incorrect, these constructions are used everyday.” This is a GRAMMAR website, and they used “everyday” when they should have used “every day.” How can I object when my students make the same mistake? I can, but it is an uphill fight.
The www.grammar.net posting about prepositions was written by “Victoria,” a mysterious creature about whom no information was available other than her purported first name. (Is the author really a “she?” or could this be Victor or Viktor in female guise?) Being at the top of an Internet search for grammatical guidance, my students might land on this site, and could they not raise the “everyday” usage to contradict my assertion that this is a grammatical error? No. In order to use a website as a source, it must be from a trusted organization, not creatures like “Victoria,” and should have an academic sponsor or some expert backing. Digging a little deeper into the “About Us” section of www.grammar.net reveals that the website is linked to “SpellChecker.net” which sells two products named SCAYT and WSC. www.grammar.net is thus a commercial organization, and not a reliable source. Their minds are on their products, and the related grammar websites are no more than a come-on.
Another consistent mistake concerns using apostrophes to make plurals. In the popular textbook A Writer’s Reference, by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers, the section on apostrophes states, “Do not use an apostrophe to pluralize an abbreviation.” According to this textbook, the plural of G.M.O., an abbreviation, should be G.M.O.s. But a recent New York Times (9/16/2012) article by Mark Bittman is entitled G.M.O.’s: Let’s Label ‘Em, defying the rules in my textbook. Shot down again.
So what’s a teacher to do? Neither The New York Times nor grammar.net support her. She is beginning to doubt the reliability of popular textbooks such as A Writer’s Reference, and has long ago despaired of using The Elements of Style because “style” has changed. Article one, page one, of that venerable tome declares that we should write “Burns’s poems” and “Charles’s friend.” The universal book at Montclair State this year was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and the university posted announcements about the appearance of “Lacks’ son” at a symposium there. I can’t even get past page one of The Elements of Style before losing support from academic and scholarly sources..
I come back to a point I have made many times before – our language is changing quickly, unreliably, unpredictably, constantly. There. I broke the first rule of Stephen King, stated over and over again in his masterful book On Writing, “Avoid adverbs!”
Apple has patented page turning on electronic books. While I understand the profit motive, it seems to me that certain things should be hustled into the public domain and left there for all to use. There is the occasional purpose for commercial activity behond just making a profit.
Having spent over half an hour in a movie theatre watching “coming attractions,” and one capsule of information and instructions after another before the movie began, I wonder how consumers and customers can rise up. Companies still did pretty well before they treated us like lemmings. I don’t want to stop going to the movies, but the insult is enough to keep me from going more often. That obviously is not working.
Dennis Baron has written about the Apple patent on his blog, The Web of Language: http://bit.ly/weblan
Here is a site loaded with cartoons about language, especially English, but some other languages as well. It is appropriately irreverent, and spikes our preconceptions, etc. — you know, the things that cartoons do. It was taken from a posting on linguist list, a resource that no person interested in English should be living without.
My linguistics background is particularly useful when teaching my Stevens Institute of Technology class of 14 Chinese, 1 Saudi, and 1 Iranian graduate students. The class is called English Communication because the arriving students have studied English for years and could not be called Second Language Learners. They arrive in the U.S. for a year or two of study thinking they speak English, and then cannot understand their professor or anybody else. It is shocking and depressing.
Never have I so appreciated my class in Phonology. I now am able, for example, to tell my students that the difference (when spoken) between “meat” and “mead” lies not in the “t” and the “d,” but in the length of the vowel. I can show them how to position the tongue and the lips to make a “v” or an “l” (the bugabears of Chinese speakers).
Nothing surprised me as much as what one Chinese student told me during an individual conference. He said that at times when I cannot understand a student, the other Chinese students can. For example, one student kept talking about a “garment,” and I could not understand her — until she added the “v,” making is “government.” The other Chinese students could understand her. There is no substitute for experience with native speakers. If Chinese English-speakers only talk with other Chinese English-speakers, they will just invent their own language, not learn English. That is what has happened with my students.
A hint: Of course, nothing speeds up learning English better than an American girlfriend, but if you can figure out ways of laughing in class, that’s second best. Laughter frees the spirit and routs nervousness almost as well as sex. (Don’t tell anyone I said that.)