Issue 6 |

Linguistics in school

by on February 19, 2016

Because linguistics is a relatively new science, most of what linguists have learnt about language over the past few decades has rarely been incorporated into school curricula or communicated to the general public. This is rather unfortunate since education has a lot to gain from integrating linguistics more widely into first language curricula of schools around the world, i.e., the curricula for what is typically the student’s native language or the first language s/he learnt as a child, such as English in Anglophone countries [1].

Why incorporate linguistics

There are two main approaches to teaching a language. One approach involves explicit instruction about words and the structure of language. The other approach involves implicit teaching, where knowledge about language is never imparted. Instead, students are exposed to many texts so they can experience language as it is used. In most English language classrooms today, teachers opt for the latter approach, and rarely introduce linguistic concepts to students.

Consequently, children in some parts of the world might have limited exposure to even the most basic grammatical terminology. This poses an obvious challenge for teachers who want to explain to their students why they have labelled a certain sentence or expression as grammatically “incorrect”. A set of common vocabulary for talking about language is useful as a pedagogical tool, especially in the early stages of formal language education.

Furthermore, learning about grammar can help students become better at using language effectively if they are shown how the grammatical choices they make can have different stylistic effects depending on the context  [2]. For example, students can explore how using the passive voice can create an academic or scholarly style, or enable them to omit the doer of an action if it is not relevant, and how cleft sentences such as ‘It was John who was singing’ can create emphasis. Younger students can learn about simple, compound and complex sentences and how varying sentence types can make their writing more interesting. They could also explore how using pronouns as substitutes for noun phrases helps to make a text more cohesive.

It’s true that many studies have demonstrated that direct grammar teaching has very little impact on students’ competence in writing. This finding led to a decline in the popularity of grammar teaching in many English-speaking countries. However, the problem with traditional grammar teaching was that it involved analysing made-up sentences without any context, and was thus unable to impress upon students how understanding grammar could help them in their writing. In fact, one study [3] shows that the writing of 12-year-old students could improve if teachers were to introduce grammar in a way that focuses on the writing process, uses authentic examples, and highlights the stylistic impacts of the linguistic choices made.

Nevertheless, the value of linguistics in school does not derive only from its benefits to language proficiency. More importantly, linguistic concepts should be taught to students as part of their general education given the centrality of language to the human experience and our everyday lives. As Aristotle put it, “man is the only animal whom she had endowed with the gift of speech”. Language is a trait that distinguishes our species from all other animals and hence constitutes the foundation of human civilisation [4]. Understanding how language works should thus be regarded as important for its own sake, just as we think it to be essential for children to learn about the chemical basis of life or the planets in the solar system even if such knowledge has no obvious or immediate practical application.

A common problem that many English teachers face is in engaging and keeping older students interested in learning English. I believe that the lack of concrete material is at the heart of the difficulty in sustaining students’ interest in English lessons. Students often get the feeling that there is really nothing much else that can be learnt in English lessons by the time they reach secondary school. I once conducted a lesson of sorts on English grammar to a small group of friends. One of them remarked later on that it was the first English lesson where he had actually learnt something. Linguistics could be a way to tackle the problem of lack of interest in language, as it allows students to discover things about the language that they already knew but never bothered to think about more deeply.

Although the study of literature is often seen as antagonistic to linguistics, in fact, linguistics can also illuminate the study of literature by giving students the conceptual tools to describe and analyse the syntax, phonology, and meaning of literary texts. Linguists working in the field of stylistics have always emphasised the value of paying close attention to how linguistic features such as the choice of pronouns, verb tenses, or modal verbs can contribute to the meaning of a text. While it’s likely that many literature courses already teach students to do these things, incorporating linguistics can provide students with the vocabulary to analyse and describe the structural aspects of literary texts in greater detail. Furthermore, these concepts are relevant not only to the analysis of literature, but can also be applied to analysing all sorts of texts that students encounter as they go about their daily lives.

What can be incorporated

There is so much in a language that even the most proficient students can be excited to learn about. Linguists investigate the inner workings of language through the study of phonology (sounds), morphology (word structure), syntax (sentence structure), semantics (literal meaning), pragmatics (implied meaning), and discourse (texts). For example, students can learn about how words such as ‘internationalisation’ or ‘dematerialisation’ are built up from smaller units known as morphemes, and how this allows us to create and understand inventions such as ‘uncookability’ or ‘sleepaholic’. They could also learn about syntax by exploring why sentences such as ‘fruit flies like a banana’ and ‘the man saw the woman with the telescope’ are ambiguous.

They can also investigate regional or non-standard varieties of a language and how they differ from the standard dialect in terms of their phonology or grammar. For example, they can explore the meaning of the habitual ‘be’ when a speaker of African-American Vernacular English says ‘She be playin’ the piano.’ In the UK, students might explore how in Cockney English, the glottal stop [5] can be used in place of the [t] sound at the end of a syllable, or at the beginning of an unstressed syllable like in ‘butter’ (but never at the beginning of a stressed syllable like ‘attack’). In Singapore, students can explore the meaning of the numerous discourse particles such as ‘meh’ and ‘loh’ in Colloquial Singapore English, otherwise known as Singlish.

There are a myriad of interesting questions that can emerge from a greater familiarity with language and how it differs across contexts. Students with a more critical understanding of the role of language in society can begin to explore issues such as: “How does gender and social class affect the way we speak?”, “What is the role of English as a global language today?” and “How is the Internet changing the English language?” Briefly exploring such issues is particularly relevant as it deepens their understanding of the language that surrounds them in everyday life.

To be sure, a growing number of high school programmes worldwide are beginning to explore these questions in their curricula. In the UK, high school students can choose to explore some of these issues by taking the A-level English Language subject. Similar subjects are offered to students worldwide under programmes such as the Cambridge International GCE A-levelsInternational Baccalaureate (IB) [6], as well as the Victorian Certificate of Education in English. These subjects focus on how language is used in actual situations and emphasise the importance of the wider context in understanding language. Students learn to use linguistic concepts to analyse language choices in all types of texts such as advertisements, speeches, press releases, blogs, and everyday conversations. In the process of studying how different linguistic features can create different text types, they might even become better users of language.

Fundamentally, these courses expose students to the extent to which a single language can vary across social groups, geography, and communicative contexts. Given the status of English as a global language, this is especially important if students are to communicate with or understand other English speakers who might speak a variety of English different from their own.

Unfortunately, these courses are generally unavailable to students in the US and Canada, apart from a few attempts at outreach programmes. Moreover, even for those taking the A-levels or the IB, these subjects are offered to students as one of numerous subject options. In the UK, A-level English Language is often regarded as less rigorous and thus less desirable than English Literature. This is unfortunate, for such knowledge need not be seen as a specialised domain from which only a few students can benefit. Instead, some of the material taught can be incorporated into the English curriculum at the secondary/middle school level to complement it and make it more interesting.

Investigating language structure

One integral aspect of linguistics that the aforementioned high school courses have neglected involves analysing the structure of languages. The view of language as a rule-based system that allows us to combine smaller units to create larger units of meaning, and not simply a bunch of words, is probably the most important idea in linguistics. Many students are likely to find a systematic and scientific approach to analysing language structure interesting, especially those who are more inclined towards logical and methodical styles of learning. This could for example involve exploring the rules governing how the plural suffix {-s} is pronounced in English (such as why the {-s} is pronounced different in ‘books’ and in ‘dogs’), or the many rules involved in forming questions from statements.

Unlike subjects such as chemistry or biology, where comparatively more physical resources are needed to acquire the relevant data before any meaningful thinking can be carried out, linguistic data can be more easily obtained either from introspection or empirical observation. Language is conveniently everywhere around us and analysing it at a basic level often requires nothing more than a pen, paper, and perhaps a voice recorder.

In fact, linguistics can be a very good platform to teach analytical and scientific thinking since thinking linguistically involves formulating and testing hypotheses from linguistic data to derive general rules that adequately describe the language. This has been shown before in a study [7] where grade 7 (12-year-old) students spent two weeks investigating linguistic phenomena and thinking about the inquiry process. Interviews prior to and after the teaching unit demonstrated how students developed a fuller understanding about the nature of the scientific method. Such activities that explore the rules and structure of languages can occasionally be introduced into the language classroom to get students thinking about language in a way which benefits their cognitive development.

One way to do this is through Linguistics Olympiads, which have been held around the world in the UK, Canada, and the USA. These Olympiads assume no background in linguistics, and involve puzzles that require one to figure out the rules from a set of linguistic data. A common puzzle format (see here for an example) presents us with sentences in an unfamiliar language and their translation in English (or any other language). We are then asked to analyse the data and translate some new sentences in the unfamiliar language into English and vice versa. Not only are such problems fun and engaging for students, they also help in developing problem solving skills, and are particularly helpful in crossing the “art-science” divide by encouraging arts students to take an interest in scientific thinking, and science students to take an interest in the structure of language.

Some fundamental ideas we should convey

Even if teachers don’t have enough time to explore linguistic concepts in much detail, they should still introduce their students to some of the most central ideas of the field, especially since they remain widely unknown to most educated people.

One of these is descriptivism, which is an approach to language that aims to describe how language is actually being used, and contrasted against prescriptivism, which aims to prescribe to learners one version of language deemed to be “correct”. Many educated people believe that there is a “correct” form of language, and that we ought to prevent ourselves from deviating from it and lapsing into “bad, broken English”. This is a result of the lack of active efforts by teachers to promote an honest, value-free approach to the study of language—one which recognises that “correctness” in language is dictated by the norms of actual usage.

Unfortunately, most language teaching focuses only on a few formal styles of language use. A simple example is the common grammar question that asks students to choose between ‘who’ and ‘whom’ in sentences such as “This is Tom, who(m) I believe you have met.” This approach ignores variation because most teachers would not have spent time emphasising the importance of context in making such linguistic choices. It simply labels the use of ‘whom’ as invariably “correct”, even though using ‘who’ could be more appropriate in some casual settings where ‘whom’ might sound unnatural and contrived [8]. Ultimately, there is a need to actively convey the idea that “correctness” often depends on the context and that we can alternate between different registers depending on the conversational setting (linguists call this code-switching).

From the perspective of a language learner, one perennial difficulty is in making sense of the errors pointed out by a teacher. It is even more unhelpful when grammatical errors are simply dismissed as problems of “expression” or “style”. Knowledge of grammar can at times help to clarify the student’s doubts. Of course, the problems are often matters of word choice and usage, which no theory of syntax can resolve. As such, students should be exposed to the idea of a corpus as a much more effective alternative to dictionaries. A corpus is a body of genuine text used to draw conclusions about how language is used, such as the British National Corpus and the corpus used in Google’s Ngram Viewer.

For example, corpora can be used to resolve uncertainties over the use of “in hindsight” vs. “on hindsight”, or “syllabi” vs. “syllabuses”. Though the corpus tools would reveal that the first of each pair is more frequently used, the crucial discovery one would make is that both options are acceptable. Students should be taught to use these tools to make intelligent judgements about language use without simply deferring to the intuitions of their teachers as the sole authority on language matters, who might at times reject either usage.

Students can also be made more aware of the differences between speech and writing. Even if they are tacitly aware of the differences, people often imagine that spoken conversations closely resemble the scripted dialogue one encounters in novels and plays. But speech includes numerous features that distinguish it from writing such as intonation, rhythm and pauses that convey emotion and attitude, more “incomplete” sentences, and fillers such as ‘like’ and ‘um’. Some people might also wonder why the ‘b’ in ‘debt’ and the ‘p’ in ‘receipt’ are unpronounced, believing that the written form of the word is somehow more legitimate than its actual pronunciation. The historical reasons for irregular spelling in English is worth exploring, but ultimately, we should understand that words don’t have to be pronounced the way they are spelt.

Finally, teachers can introduce students to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which they are sure to encounter in dictionaries. The IPA is an extremely useful tool in linguistics that teachers can use to teach pronunciation and enunciation in a more informed and precise manner, or to explore the phonology of the various dialects of a language.

In conclusion

So what could a revised English curriculum include? Students can study and systematically investigate the various component systems in the language: its grammar, vocabulary, sound system, and writing system. They can learn to talk knowledgeably about language, and apply their understanding to analysing language in use. They should be exposed to the variation in the spoken and written language that surrounds them on a daily basis, thus allowing them to acquire a greater appreciation of both structural and functional characteristics of English or whatever language they speak.

While linguistics doesn’t have to be made into a separate subject, linguistic concepts and ideas should be incorporated into the first language curriculum. Linguistics can enrich students’ experience of language learning in a more meaningful and scientifically informed way, thus giving them a richer appreciation for their language and how it works.


[1] However, in many cases, the main language taught in schools is the official or most prominent language in the society, though not necessarily the student’s own first language.

[2] The book Making Sense of Grammar (2004) by David Crystal is reference guide to grammar from the point of view of meaning and shows how knowledge of grammar can complement language use.

[3] Jones, S., Myhill, D. & Bailey, T. (2013). Grammar for writing? An investigation of the effects of contextualised grammar teaching on students’ writing. Reading and Writing, 26(8): 1241-63.

[4] Searle, J. (2010). Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilisation. New York: Oxford University Press.

[5] This is the sound pronounced between the two vowels in ‘uh-oh’. It’s produced by closing the vocal folds together and then releasing them again.

[6] The IB programme offers a subject known as English Language and Literature. The language component of the course focuses mainly on text analysis.

[7] Carey, S., Evans, R., Honda, M., Jay, E. & Unger, C. (1989). “An experiment is when you try it and see if it works”: A study of grade 7 students’ understanding of the construction of scientific knowledge. International Journal of Science Education, 11: 514-29. Note to linguists: Some phenomena explored included the phonological realisation of the plural morpheme, the formation of yes-no questions as well as the evidence for wh-traces from “wanna” contraction.

[8] Of course, this might not apply equally to every dialect. Nonetheless, making such a linguistic choice would depend on the speaker’s appreciation for the context.

One Response to “Linguistics in school”

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