Geolinguistics?

One Saturday last month, when I walked into the Saturday Course wearing my map jacket, the director brought up the idea that I should consider teaching a geography course. I was lukewarm to that idea, primarily because I couldn’t imagine how to make it interesting to fifth- and sixth-graders. The thought sat in the back of my mind during the morning and didn’t really go anywhere. Then, at lunch, we were talking about the new course suggestions that some of the kids had written on their evaluations; geography was mentioned again, as were languages. Perhaps this combo had been spurred by the very popular “Taste of Italy” course. In any case, a light bulb went on in my head. It has been years since I’ve taught anything that uses my extensive background and interest in linguistics, and I realized that it would combine wonderfully with geography. So I started thinking… How about this as a course for sixth-graders — just stream-of-consciousness, not yet a course description:

Each week this course would focus on an important language and/or region of the world. We will explore things like the geography of the region, names you should know, what languages are spoken where, and some characteristics of those languages. For example, one week might focus on China: what are its different ethnic groups…is Chinese a single language with many dialects?…do Chinese characters represent words or sounds? how do you pronounce Chinese transliteration (pinyin)?…how much of Asia does China take up?…is Tibet part of China…is Mongolia?…what’s China’s connection with Korea and Japan?…

Another week could focus on Iberia. Everyone knows that they speak Spanish in Spain…but kids won’t know about Catalan. How and why is it closer to French than to Spanish? Where else is it spoken? What about Galician — is it really just Portuguese? And why is Basque so utterly different from everything else? And where and why did Spanish and Portuguese spread around so much of the world?…Do they speak Spanish in all of Latin America?…And why is it called “Latin” America anyway?…

Another week could focus on the English-speaking world…why is English so widespread?…how does it vary in different English-speaking countries?…why do most of them border the sea?…what does English look like for a non-native speaker?… Then I’m thinking of the former Soviet Union one week, including a look at the enormous spread of the Turkic peoples into Central Asia and western China, and the Indian subcontinent for a fifth week (no particular order suggested yet). That would leave the last week for a pot-pourri, including the often-neglected Indonesia.

It would be interesting to see what prior knowledge kids come in with. For example, they probably know that China is the most populous country, but they probably don’t know that it’s more than 25% of the world’s population. And I’d bet that very few know that the U.S. has only 5% of the world’s people, or that India has more than three times our population. And surely none of them know that the aforementioned Indonesia has just about as many people as we do. Some interesting activities could include “guessing” quizzes, follow-up research, use of map pins, a “guess that language” activity….

This is obviously far too extensive for a six-week course as described, but it’s a good start.



Categories: Linguistics, Teaching & Learning