Linguistics: a New Class for 2018

A linguistics class will be added to the English department at Oyster River High School of next school year. Although students who complete this class will be getting an English credit, the class focuses largely on the functions, purposes, and theories of language.  The course will cover a myriad of topics including the history of English, the structure of language, psychological and sociological theories, figurative language, and even accents and slangs.

Hanwen Liang (‘18) is one of the 60 plus students who signed up for the class. She heard about the class from Mr. Kelly, an English teacher at ORHS. Liang said, “Mr. Kelly had been talking about it since last year. I want to learn about how the different languages work.” Liang already knows two languages, Mandarin and English, but she doesn’t know the structure and other components of language. She is most interested in learning about accents, slangs, dialects, and world languages because they aren’t what a student is typically taught in a classroom setting.

Nicholas Dundorf (‘18) also wants to take the class next year. He said, “I’m really excited to learn how language itself affects our culture and how we think. People with different first languages often go through different thought processes, which is really interesting to me in the context of clashing cultures and nations… I definitely see it as important. I really hope we have in depth discussions about the nature of language and how it affects us. I don’t know what to expect for workload, but regardless, I think I will thoroughly enjoy the class.”

This class was put together by a student-staff team of Fiona Grove (‘17) and  Kelly. Kelly had been thinking about putting a class together focusing on the form and effect of language. While doing summer work for a Master’s program on teaching English, he decided to take on the challenge of creating a new class. “I’m very interested in it; it’s the dream class for me [to teach],” he said. Knowing about Grove’s passion for languages, he proposed a linguistics independent study to her and she quickly accepted. Grove said, “I was really excited to have the opportunity to study something that I typically wouldn’t be able to until college and to really be able to specialize in that subject.”

This unique collaboration ended up proving to be very beneficial in the creation of this class. While Kelly was building the curriculum, Grove was acting as both a researcher and as a trial student. For Grove, it started off more as a mini class of linguistics, a pick what and choose kind of situation. She didn’t find that topic of study very interesting so she decided to change her focus to “what should be taught in a high school linguistics class?” That was when ball started to roll more smoothly for her.

Everything Grove did was for herself but by doing so, she was also helping Kelly by giving him a student’s perspective. “I was able to identify themes students should learn about, figure out what others would be interested in, and test drive potential projects,” she said. Grove’s research led her to talk to different professors from different colleges of linguistics. After asking them what core things to learn, she came up with a list of topics that she thought other high school students should and would like to learn about.

While researching and studying on her own, Grove began to pay more attention to the way people pronounce their vowels and certain consonants since those are key marks to determine one’s accent. “I ended up calling out Mr. Bromley because he pronounced the word ‘documentary’ different than those who have grown up in the Seacoast area. It isn’t that he pronounces it wrong or anything; he just pronounces the ‘t’ very heavily. For most areas in New England, you don’t pronounce the ‘t’ when followed by an ‘n’.” In case you were wondering, Mr. Bromley is from New York.

Grove and Kelly also looked at etymology, the study of the origin of words. “One of the words we looked at was ‘sauce’, like as in tossing something. Neither of us knew where that came from, but one of his students knew where it did because he was a hockey player. When you hit a puck in the air in hockey, it spins like a flying saucer – so sauce me the puck. Pretty cool right?”

They also looked at semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. Kelly explained, “there is a famous painting. It’s just a tobacco pipe and underneath, in French, it says ‘This is not a pipe’. The idea behind the art is to say that what you are looking at is a symbol of a pipe. If you try to put tobacco into this piece of art and smoke it, it’s not going to work, but when you see it, you think to yourself ‘that’s a pipe’. The idea of art is to call attention to how we use symbols.”

After a immersing herself in linguistics for a semester, Grove has come to believe that linguistics is something everybody should learn. “Something I learned is that people can discriminate based on the way people speak. There is no incorrect way to speak. It doesn’t matter if you have an accent or that you speak in a slightly different vernacular or dialect – that doesn’t make your language incorrect because all language is people trying to communicate ideas. It doesn’t matter if you speak in a very grammatically correct way. What matters is that you can communicate your thoughts and ideas.”

Written by Megan Wu