At Lincoln-Sudbury in the 1970s I taught a rotating sequence of linguistics courses along with my primary assignment of teaching math. As my undergraduate and graduate work were in linguistics, it was a natural fit. In my ten years teaching in Weston, I’ve never taught a linguistics course, but last month I proposed a one-semester Multidisciplinary elective, Introduction to Linguistics. Here are some excerpts from the proposal:
This course would be aimed at students in grades 9–12 who are interested in languages, love words, and believe that the scientific approach to learning is a valid one. It needs to be a multidisciplinary course: while the content would focus on foreign languages, it would also strengthen students’ understanding of English, and the approach (though not the content) is that of science. As a course that is offered in almost every college but very few high schools, it would look good on students’ transcripts (always a plus in Weston).
The course would address questions like these:
- What patterns are found in all languages, and why?
- Why is English used so widely? Why do so many Americans think that there’s no need to know any language other than English?
- How does it happen that the Irish and the Pakistanis speak related languages, even though their countries are so far apart? Why do the Austrians and the Hungarians speak unrelated languages, even though their countries are next to each other?
- How did Latin evolve into French and Spanish (and Italian and Portuguese and Romanian…)? Why is it false to say that English is descended from Latin?
- What’s a dialect? Are Mandarin, Cantonese, etc., actually separate languages, or are they really just dialects of Chinese? Are there different dialects of English as well; if so, are they regional or class differences?
- How can we understand language better by thinking about it scientifically? What kinds of data are used in linguistics? How do we turn patterns into conjectures and conjectures into conclusions?
- Surprisingly, linguists will tell you that it isn’t true that the vowels of English are a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y. Why not?
- Why is sign language really a language?
- How did language first originate in the human species? Can other creatures use language, or is it limited to humans? Is there a “language facility” in the human brain that enables virtually all children to learn language?
- How can we know about really ancient languages, or other languages that were only spoken and not written? What is the connection between spoken and written languages anyway? Is there such a thing as a primitive language?
- Do the Eskimos really have 47 different words for snow? Why does it matter?
- As languages develop over the centuries, do they become simpler or more complex?
- Do young children learn to speak primarily from their parents or their peers?
- Why do some English words come from Latin, some from Greek, some from French, some from Old English, and so forth?
- How important is word order in different languages? For example, do German verbs really go at the end of the sentence? Is it true that words can go in any order in Latin?
I don’t know whether this will fly or not.