Nine ways (or six, she said originally) to do linguistics in high school

Unfortunately, I’ve never heard of a high school offering linguistics courses or indeed knowing much of anything about linguistics.

So writes distinguished linguist Gretchen McCulloch. After all, everyone knows that linguistics is purely an undergraduate and graduate subject in colleges and universities, right?

Well, not exactly. The first counterexample that comes to mind (my mind, that is) is that I taught a variety of linguistics electives at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School — one or two per semester for the last 11 of my 12 years there (1970–1981). These electives included such titles as Languages of the World; Computational Linguistics; Codes, Logic, and Semantics; History of the English Language; and Psycholinguistics. (This decade was the ’70s, remember, and L-S in those days was very much a ’70s school.) The first of these was clearly the most popular. The semester consisted of an exploration of four disparate languages — Norwegian, Middle Egyptian, Turkish, Mandarin — approaching them with a compare-and-contrast flavor but without doing that explicitly. Using a self-published textbook that I wrote while I was teaching it for the first time, students learned syntax, semantics, and writing systems  through a combination of inductive reasoning and didactic lessons, with emphasis on the former. I selected the four languages to illustrate maximum diversity, representing four different language families, three different writing systems, and four different syntactic structures. (Yes, I know that writing systems are not usually considered part of linguistics, which normally studies speech — but they are so motivating and fascinating. I was also, of course, constrained to languages that I knew something about, but my undergraduate and graduate work in linguistics gave me plenty of fodder. I had thought of including Ancient Greek, since I had a lot of background in it, but I couldn’t figure out how to get through enough of it in a quarter of a semester. And I already had an Indo-European language, Norwegian, which has the advantage of being very close to English — not as close as Dutch, but I don’t know any Dutch, and to this day I can’t pronounce the name of my Dutch student correctly.) At the end of the course, students did their own comparing and contrasting with as much depth as they could muster, by figuring out the ways in which three fictional (constructed) languages matched the four that we had studied. I still love that course!

At Weston I’ve also taught linguistics to three different students in independent studies.

Another interesting counterexample is the linguistics elective taught by Suzanne Loosen at the Milwaukee School of Languages. We notice the following post in her blog:

Richard Larson at Stony Brook University is leading the effort to establish Advanced Placement Linguistics as a high school course. The AP Linguistics committee met for the first time at the Linguistic Society of America conference in Austin on Jan. 7, 2017. The process to create the course includes compiling a sampling of syllabi from LING 101 courses from around the country, writing curriculum and an AP exam, getting 250 high schools to commit to offering AP Linguistics at their high schools, and training teachers. The process will take 5-7 years.

I hope that effort succeeds!

Loosen’s one-semester course includes “an introduction to linguistics, phonetics, morphology, language acquisition, sociolinguistics, and the history of English” — more traditionally linguistic than what I did, but it sounds great.

After being informed of other counterexamples, McCulloch does provide a update that links to some of them. But, returning to her original piece, let’s look at her “six ways to do linguistics in high school.” Her list is aimed at students who want to learn linguistics. Here is a summary of her six ways:

  1. Learn some languages, if possible ones from a variety of different language families.
  2. Find some introductory linguistics resources.
  3. Check out linguists online.
  4. Contort your existing high school coursework into linguistics.
  5. Maybe try conlanging?
  6. Check out Linguistics Olympiads.

A great list, with lots of details and links to support it, so read her whole piece!

Categories: Linguistics, Teaching & Learning