Sunday, November 02, 2014

Linguistics for high schools: what would a syllabus look like?

Today, just for fun, I'd like to invite you to discuss a topic a little off the beaten track for this blog: how much linguistics should a high school graduate know? The question may seem bizarre - there have been occasional efforts to introduce linguistics courses into high schools (MIT, Milwaukee), but you don't expect to see "linguistics" on a high school curriculum. Still, let's not get confused by labels. Linguistics is inextricably woven into language teaching, and even the most resolutely monolingual curriculum includes at least the school's own language. (I recently happened to come across an 8th grade final exam from 1895 from Kansas; no foreign languages were featured, but no less than two out of the six subjects tested, Grammar and Orthography, rely heavily on linguistic concepts.)

One useful way of separating linguistic education from language education is to look at universality. Some of what you learn in English class is useful across practically all languages, like the idea of a verb or of a vowel. Some of it is much more parochial; the fact that the plural of "child" is "children" is a historical accident relevant only to English and, at best, its closest relatives. Such parochial facts can be vital, of course; if you're going to grow up in an English-speaking country, you'd better be able to form your English irregular plurals correctly. But the more general concepts have a deeper interest; they help you analyse what you're saying, and make it easier to learn new languages. Unfortunately, those concepts are precisely the ones that have suffered most in recent decades. In the UK, at least, my own experience suggests that most high school graduates can't even reliably tell a noun from a verb. In theory, the latest changes to the English syllabus should change that - but given that many of the teachers were hardly taught any grammar either, one wonders how successful the reform will be.

In any case, if I were designing a syllabus, here is what I would suggest to start with. I'd be interested to see what other linguistically oriented people think:

Phonetics has never been a focus of early education, apart from the minimum necessary for teaching a child to read and write (and even that gets de-emphasised in some approaches). This is a shame, because the younger you are, the easier it is to learn to hear and pronounce unfamiliar sounds. Why not learn:
- The IPA, or at least the most commonly used symbols in it; be able to pronounce and recognise them. This should include tone if at all possible.
- Basic articulatory phonetics: how the configuration of your vocal organs relates to the sound produced, and how to use this knowledge to pronounce unfamiliar sounds. (If your language uses Devanagari, you should have an advantage, as this is practically built in to the alphabet anyway; students of tajweed too will come across this issue at some point.)
- Phonology: the concepts of the phoneme and of conditioned allophones. That way when you learn another language you'll at least know why some sounds give you so much more trouble than others.
- Metric structure: syllable, foot, etc. (Yes, I know the concept of syllable is controversial, but you'll need this to be able to study poetry anyway.)

Morphology is a lot more language-specific than the other topics here, but one should at least know:
- How to decompose a word into its component morphemes (prefixes, suffixes, templates, roots...), and guess its meaning from them if necessary.

Syntax: Unlike phonology, this has traditionally been deliberately taught, and you should certainly know:
- The parts of speech: noun, verb, adjective, preposition, etc... and how to tell them apart.
- Argument structure and case: subject, direct object, nominative, accusative, etc.
- How to to break down a sentence into its phrase structure: what modifies what? What is a phrase, and what is its head? For best results, try being able to diagram it.

Unfortunately, it's not quite so simple: all three of those - especially the latter - are the subject of major controversies between different syntactic theories... (Two good Language Log posts on this issue: parts of speech and sentence diagramming.) If you teach whatever theory happens to be traditional where you're from, you may not make any friends in academia, and you risk perpetuating some old misconceptions; but you will certainly leave your students much better prepared to learn any more current theory - or any language - than if they had studied no grammar at all.

Historical linguistics and sociolinguistics: The language you speak most likely has relatives, and certainly contains words borrowed from other languages. You should understand:
- That there is normally variation inside a single language, which people often use to signal their social position and to identify the social position of others, and over which people's control is limited.
- That languages change over time as some variants become obsolete and others emerge, and in what ways they change - sound shift, semantic shift, borrowing, morphological and syntactic change...
- That different changes accumulating in different areas can split what used to be one language into several, and that people can abandon one language and start speaking another one instead.
- That sound shifts are usually regular, and that this regularity can be used to identify potential cognates (making it easier to learn languages related to ones you know.)

There should certainly also be some semantics and pragmatics in this list, but I'm not feeling especially inspired on either subject at the moment - any thoughts?


mark said...

You need more pragmatics.

Markedness: how saying something in a special way also means something special — cf. your caretaker calling you by your full name instead of your first name when they're about to rebuke you.

Some version of Grice's maxims: that we expect each other's contributions to be relevant and informative, and that if they fail on either count there are social implications.

Speech acts: that you have to look at what people do with words to understand why they say what they say. E.g. we all comment on the weather not because that's so fantastically interesting but because we want to show that we value being together — we use language not for exchanging information but for building social relations.

Text and context: that what we say is always underpinned by context and common ground, and that this is why something like 'it's hot in here' can come to be interpreted as 'please close the window'.

Tom Dawkes said...

I agree with teaching the IPA, not least because it would in time become an accessible altenative to the horrendous 'imitated' pronunciations given in phrasebooks and so many otherwise top-range dictionaries, such as Chambers English Dictionary. (I have to confess that I was reading Daniel Jones on English pronunciation by the time I was 12, so I'm no doubt partial!)
It's interesting that University Challenge has been setting questions involving IPA and phonetics in recent contests.

Jim said...

This is a good framework. I have given this some thought myself, since I used to teach French at the secondary level. I always thought high school linguistics would be a good idea with implications for the teaching of history especially. There's a reason that most f the English names for Plains tribes happen to come from Absaaloke (the Crow and the US were allies.)

You have outlined the teaching objectives and the next step is to decide on methods. I think you need to teach all the aspects you list from looking at actual languages (the way they were identified in the first place!)

The first step is baby steps through some easy IE stuff, since the kids are English speakers and have had some exposure to Spanish, and maybe French.

With high school kids you do that with languages they care about. Here in the Seattle-Tacoma area that would be comparing Khmer, Vietnamese, Thai (actually Lao)mostly and Samoan, since these are the heritage languages students have access to. This immediately gives you historical linguistics, and in this case the whole controversy over genetic affiliations, and from that you could teach how to evaluate these arguments when you see them.

The next layer is to compare all this with Lushootseed, since it is initially intimidating, very different from English, and the local indigenous language anyway.

So right off, you have had to plow through a lot of phonetics, a lot of phonology - with actual cases to show how systems of related languages differ and diverge - and a huge load of morphology. In this selection of languages you get various kinds of verbal aspect systems, and you get an ergative case system, a trigger alignment system and word order systems.

for the cherry on top, some kids take Chinese courses, so you can talk about adstrate and substratum effects.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Mark: Great list!

Tom: A promising sign?

Jim: I like the sound of that methodology, and I think the students would love it. But it would be hard work - I suspect all but the most enthusiastic teachers would balk at having to brush up on grammars of all major immigrant languages of their region plus the local indigenous language before they can even start designing the course!

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

A Facebook discussion of this also contributed a lot of good suggestions - thanks everybody! Here are a few especially useful links from that:

English Language A-level (a British high school qualification)

VCE English Language (an Australian high school qualification)

Review of Linguistics at School (a book on - you'll be surprised to hear - teaching linguistics at schools)

Jim said...

" But it would be hard work - I suspect all but the most enthusiastic teachers would balk at having to brush up on grammars of all major immigrant languages of their region plus the local indigenous language before they can even start designing the course!"

Ah, but you underestimate just how ground level these students would be. What the teacher really needs is the linguistics chops. That and maybe the ability to coach some sport on the side. such are the realities of teaching at that level.

For a teacher with a linguistics background the language familiarity would come faster than for the students, a la Ichabod Crane. And that's only the first semester. It would become easier and easier each time around.

The other advantage of the model is that it can be tailored to local communities. You can align the assortment of languages with what is present in the community, or really more to the point, what you can count on the students to have some interest in, to see as decently relevant.

David Marjanović said...

Yes yes yes!!!

your caretaker calling you by your full name instead of your first name when they're about to rebuke you

Incidentally, that's a specifically... if not American, then still English thing.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Further discussion at All Things Linguistic.

Dominik Lukeš said...

I've discussed this some time ago on

In short, I don't think IPA, morphology or syntax are nearly as important as knowing about the rich interaction between culture, power and language.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Dominik: Thanks for giving your perspective, but as you may have guessed, I wouldn't agree. With certain important reservations and modifications, I'd say those five principles could make a fine curriculum for a month, maybe a term if you stretched them a bit. Longer than that, and I'd find myself desperately bored with them. All of these principles are basically reactions against traditional views, and as such make sense only to the extent that those traditional views are maintained. 5 in particular is utterly irrelevant unless the students have already studied, in some depth, the idea that language does basically consist of words and rules. Likewise, 4 - while true - simply begs the question of what a dictionary is for. As for those reservations I mentioned earlier, let's just say that the "just" in 2 changes it from trivially true to profoundly problematic.

Dominik Lukeš said...

I suspect that if you could cover the richness of language hidden in my five points in a month or a semester, you'd barely scratch the surface. So the difference between yours and mine curricular proclivities lies in what we consider linguistics more than in how long you would need to cover it.

But that wasn't really the point of the post. I personally love teaching phonology, morphology and syntax. They're a lot of fun, particularly if you can do them from a typological perspective. I was even one of the markers in a UK linguistic Olympiad. My point is that most people don't. And it historically hasn't made any difference whether they got exposed to diagramming or not. I'm one of several generations who did hard core dependency syntax in primary school. Yet, very few grew up to be linguists, skilled stylists or polyglots. At best they knew what an adverb was (just about). What the outcome of generations of teaching this (fun for some, torture for most) subject was a general prescriptivist bent that marginalised those speaking other dialects whatever their other merits were. So I would have much rather seen a single semester on pragmatics, bilingualism and sociolinguistics than years on syntax and morphology.

If you would personally be bored, then I'd suggest you don't do it. The job of the teacher is not be entertained but be of use to the students.

Also, you mistake the formulation of my 5 points for their substance. I did formulate them in opposition to the mainstream but only because it was in the context of an argument. They can be approached entirely positively. You don't see construction grammarians, functionalists, or modern typologists constantly refer to generativists. The more than rules and words point can be approached very easily without relying on any knowledge of the previous paradigm.

But even that wasn't the main point. The main point was my discomfort with linguists pushing their subject on innocent victims for no other reason than feeling left out. Not because of personal dislike - I go to linguistics conferences on my vacation - but because I have empathy for those who would hate it as much as I hated chemistry and what's worse, learn as little from it.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

If that's what you intend as your main point, then I'm rather more in sympathy with it. Apart from the barest minimum necessary to let people function in society, learning should be voluntary; people forced into classes don't learn much themselves, and get in the way of others learning. Even in the 1990s you could at least still leave school at 16, which is one reason why I picked "high school" for this post's title. However, I see that that's regrettably no longer an option in the UK, unless you do an apprenticeship or a job instead. Fortunately, though, you do still at least get to choose which subjects to take from 16 on, so anyone still doing linguistics after that has only themselves to blame. I would certainly like to see more linguistics in schools, but not more innocent victims, of linguistics or of chemistry.

As for being bored, I meant if I were the student, not if I were the teacher. I used to hate it when teachers insisted on repeating the same small set of points over and over, and tried to impose a particular value system as the right answer.

Dominik Lukeš said...

Well, it seems that we're in agreement. If somebody chose to study linguistics as an optional subject (e.g. as a UK A-level subject), I'd certainly be all for including phonology, morphology and syntax. I'd probably choose something like Dixon's Basic Linguistic Theory as a starting point or something in the functionalist tradition over anything in the Pinker vein but that's really more a matter of degree - I've recommended Pinker to people as a quick and easy intro to some of the key issues. My post was written in response to Liberman's and Hudson's suggestions that grammar theory should be taught as part of the general curriculum.

I would probably include more on contact linguistics and acquisition than is habitual in intro courses and I would definitely make sure they use a corpus from the very start as well as other online tools like WALS and Ethnologue. I've taught an intro to language where the students started by eliciting some speech samples using pictures (similar to the Edinburgh corpus) and it was very successful.

Perhaps the thing is to come up with some sample linguistics curricula for different purposes and share them online. I've always wanted to come up with some but have been too busy.