Why linguistics should be taught in public education

By: Kristin Eck
Copy Editor

It’s time that people in the linguistics world stop differentiating themselves from people in the “real world.” I’m excited for the opportunity to live in a future that will incorporate linguistics into the public education system.

When I tell people I’m a linguistics major most of them assume I either know or am studying multiple languages. I tell them that linguistics is more about understanding how language operates as a system, rather than the physical expression of language as seen through various world languages. In other words, I study linguistics and I’m shockingly fluent in only one language.

Many of my discussions end in confusion about why someone would ever study such a non-applicable subject. To many people, linguistics is considered a fairly new field of research that didn’t really gain traction until the ‘70s with Noam Chomsky’s work on cognitive linguistics.

I’m no expert in linguistics. In fact, I’ve barely dipped my toes into its imperceptible depths. But as an undergraduate student with a passion for what I’m studying, I can attempt to answer the questions that seem to have so many puzzled: what will I do with linguistics and what is it even good for?

I’ll start off by saying that I believe linguistics should be widely taught in public education. I’ll even be so bold as to say that linguistics could easily replace traditional grammar lessons and greatly improve the rate at which people of all ages acquire second languages.

Have you ever had a teacher tell you not to start a sentence with but? Or not to use “that” after a semicolon? Or not to switch tenses in a sentence? We’re told not to do very specific things in public education but are never told why. Linguistics has the answers.

Linguistics has the potential to improve reading and writing skills while bettering language acquisition and cross-cultural understanding.

I recently read an article about two educators in New York, Mary Moran and Patricia Paugh, who successfully incorporated linguistics into their third-grade urban classroom in an effort to achieve academic literacy. Their daring venture paid off and their students improved not only their writing and speaking skills, but also their critical thinking ability.

Moran and Paugh had to accommodate common challenges found in urban classrooms and they were discouraged that some of their students struggled more than others. Many of their students came from different backgrounds, some with English as their second language, and struggled to assimilate to their learning environment. The biggest challenge for the educators was trying to get their students to understand how to use appropriate language in specific genres, primarily academic writing.

Their project was aimed at bringing context into the classroom so students could relate to what they were being taught and understand how language was used differently in various fields. They started by accumulating thematic collections of texts, such as, gardening books, books about animals and cookbooks. From their collections, Moran and Paugh decided that a gardening unit would suit their classroom curriculum for fall semester without encroaching on their state’s mandated core curriculum.

The garden unit gave students the opportunity to work in their school and community gardens, as well as go out to local farmer’s markets and interact with the community. The students were given journals and were told to write down common words they observed and anything they found interesting. The farmers and volunteers at these sites also helped educate the students and taught them about planting, weeding and the importance of good soil.

When the students returned to the classroom, they would free-write in their journals about what they had experienced, using the terminology that they learned that day. These experiences and lessons helped students understand how to write academically by connecting real-life experiences to their writing and making them relatable and memorable to the students.

As I mentioned before, their efforts paid off and the students literacy increased year after year. By cultivating the students’ language awareness, their students were able to identify certain language features present in different genres and use them appropriately. The focus on student-generated knowledge, rather than curriculum-based knowledge, gave the students confidence to utilize the knowledge they had acquired. They eventually went on to share their knowledge with other students in the school.

In linguistic terms, Moran and Paugh were incorporating two linguistic theories of learning. The first is called Critical Pedagogy of Place, which involves the physical spaces of communities that we often take for granted and is aimed at making education personally relevant to students. Additionally, CPP is designed to mold students into active, helpful members of their communities by giving them contextual relevance in relation to what they’re learning.

The second is similar to CPP but focuses more on language; Systemic Functional Linguistics aims to connect language to social contexts. SFL is important in this story because the educators observed how common core language arts lessons are designed to be as a received set of skills. SFL is different in that is focuses on the function of language, and it’s the function of language that drives its purpose in society.

These are just two linguistic theories that I believe could vastly improve our education system. It’s difficult to remember what it was like learning to write because English-speakers who grew up in the public education system learned that skill at such an early age. However, many students don’t have the privilege of growing up in an English-speaking household where things at home have the same name as they do in the outside world.

But besides helping people with language acquisition, theories like SFL simply make more sense from an educational standpoint. Currently, language arts, writing and grammar are taught as a specific set of skills that students must master. Students are given no explanation as to why they’re learning this stuff, and if an inquisitive student dares to ask for an explanation, most of the time they won’t get a satisfying answer.

I am excited to be a part of a future where SFL and CPP could be universally incorporated into the education system. I’m also proud to say that Western is one of the few schools in Oregon that actually require teachers to study linguistics. While I don’t plan on making a career out of teaching others, I do hope to further research in this field, research that advocates for linguistics making its debut into the “real world.”

Contact the author at keck14@wou.edu