Linguistics in MetroWest

For many years I inserted linguistic lagniappes into my honors geometry classes at Weston — typically for 15–20 minutes, twice a month.

You may wonder what the connection between linguistics and geometry might be — but if you view honors geometry as a course that’s primarily about reasoning, about observing patterns and making logical deductions, then the relationship becomes clearer. Basically I wanted students to use their reasoning powers in the domain of languages just as they do with shapes, and then to see the similarities and differences. Anyway, I just came across an exciting newspaper article by Zane Razzaq, concerning a drive to include more linguistics in the high schools of MetroWest, an area of suburban Massachusetts that includes Weston. (On the map this area is highlighted in red — or in red and pink, depending on your view of reality.) I really want to quote the entire article, but I can’t very well do that, so I will settle for excerpts, based on the journalist’s interview with teacher Amy Plackowski:

Linguistics is the scientific study of language and its structure, including the study of phonetics, semantics and syntax. Specific branches of linguistics include sociolinguistics, dialectology and applied linguistics.

Plackowski joins a small but growing movement of educators around the country who want to make the subject more available to high school students….

How do you teach the subject in class?

I try to approach it from an inquiry perspective. I’ll ask kids to use their own data to come up with some rules or observations. So we’ll look at “yeet” (a slang word to express excitement) and ask when do you use it, what part of speech is it, how do you conjugate it? Can you make it past tense? How do you know if an adult is using it and using it wrong?

We talk a lot about slang and use that as an entry point to inquiry about language. We look at conlangs, which are constructed languages like Dothraki (a language from the television show Game of Thrones) and Klingon (a language spoken in the Star Trek universe). We look at how those people who put them together who are linguists, how do they develop those languages. I had them put together their own language. How do you structure sentences, how do you back formation to generate words.

They have a lot of fun with that. That kind of thing helps them understand their own languages.

Why do you think knowledge of linguistics is beneficial?

Linguistics is really relevant to almost any career that you can imagine going into. It’s the basis of marketing, it’s a science. It’s the basis of anything that involves writing or interpersonal communication. Education. I could go on and on.

I also think it’s this unique interdisciplinary blend of the STEM and the humanities stuff. It’s the science of language, so we’re looking at it from both ends. There’s also a whole branch of linguistics that’s sociolinguistics, where we look at accents and dialects in layman’s terms. We look at language change. I think a lot of kids are interested in that, or they’re interested in the language acquisition piece if they’re interested in working with little kids.

… Understanding the sociolinguistics pieces goes with thinking about social justice. Linguistic prejudice is a real thing, right? If we can talk about linguistic prejudice and we can talk about descriptivism – the idea that we are not here to judge the way people talk, that everybody has a language to draw from – that to me is really the most exciting parts of linguistics.

Linguistics is like physics – it’s all around us, but we don’t really notice that it’s happening. It teaches us to pay attention to that. We all have a language, so we all have a data set. It centers kids’ experiences in a way that not all disciplines can do in a unique way.

What career paths are possible for someone with a background in linguistics? 

The first one that comes to mind is anything in computer programming… That’s one of the big things: computer programmers in the future are going to need some kind of background in linguistics. But I also think it’s really important for any teacher to know about sociolinguistics, language change, and language varieties, just so you can understand that if you have a kid who speaks nonstandard English, that’s not a lesser form of English. It’s its own real dialect with real rules and grammars. Education, it’s super important.

Even if you are not going to go into anything that involves language, it’s important to know how marketers and politicians and the media can use language and manipulate language to provoke a reaction. Knowing linguistics makes us better citizens.

Wow! I wish I had had the opportunity to teach such a course: 20 minutes twice a month isn’t anywhere close to beginning to approach this kind of depth. Actually, I did teach such a course (multiple times, in fact) but that was in another country, as they say. Well, not literally another country: it was at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School 38–47 years ago. Lincoln and Sudbury are two more towns in MetroWest; I rotated through several semester-long linguistics electives when I was teaching there over a 12-year period. We even did the “invent your own language” thing that Ms. Plackowski does. Many of my former students tell me that they still remember the best of those courses, Languages of the World. I twice attempted to offer an elective course similar to Ms. Plackowski’s at Weston, but the Superintendent’s office vetoed the idea both times. Sigh.

Categories: Linguistics, Teaching & Learning, Weston