Sunday, March 13, 2005

The language instinct.

One of the things about studying how language works for a living is that you quickly discover that everyone has an opinion. Not only that, it's like religion rather than like astrophysics: everyone has an opinion that they consider to be valid. Because everyone speaks some language, everyone thinks that they know how Language works.

In one sense, they're right. In this sense, people know as much as adults as they did as children. People have brains particularly well-equipped for learning language; something about our cognitive architecture is perfectly suited to the learnability problem posed by human languages. The relevant cognitive architecture is not shared by other species, even those most closely related to us. We're significantly better at applying this kind of knowledge when we're children, for reasons that no one completely understands but must have something to do with the way the brain changes as we age. This is the knowledge that allows people to say with relative ease whether a particular sentence is grammatical or not in their language or dialect. (Well, unless that sentence is the convoluted construction of a syntax paper. But that's another topic for another day.)

But this isn't the kind of knowledge people think they're calling upon when they think their kids are being polluted by the poor grammar of the other kids in their kindergarten classroom; when they express vociferous opinions about Ebonics and the Oakland school board resolution, which they may or may not have read; when they talk about Latin being the most logical language of all; or when they argue that Spanish-English bilingual teachers won't be able to teach science effectively. There are more myths about language than there are about UFOs. And they're more pernicious, because fewer people recognize them as myths.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder why linguistics is not taught more often at the secondary level. It should be a requirement just as biology and European history are.

1:03 PM  
Blogger Kieran Snyder said...

Good question.

There are a couple of reasons. The first of those reasons you impicitly touch upon -- there are already a lot of requirements, with strong arguments to be made for the importance of all or most of them. There are only so many hours in the high school day, and only so many years in a high school curriculum.

The second reason is that high school teachers just aren't trained to teach this curriculum. The key step to remedying this is to make a semester of linguistics mandatory for aspiring secondary school teachers of English or foreign languages. One issue here is that linguistics as a discipline doesn't always come naturally to people whose primary interest is in literature or writing, but anyone can master an introductory semester.

I think it would be great to require secondary students to take a semester of introductory linguistics -- or at a minimum, to offer it as an elective -- in lieu of a semester of English. The class could easily be designed to include significant reading and writing assignments so that any concerns about what kids would be missing with one fewer semester of English would be moot. It would help students with their writing, foreign language study, and with any future study of any of the cognitive sciences (psychology, computer science, and so on).

2:37 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home