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‘Teaching linguistics improves language skills’

Linguistics has the potential to help students in modern languages – so why isn’t it taught, asks Michelle Sheehan

Teaching linguistics would help pupils in studying modern foreign languages, says Michelle Sheehan

Linguistics has the potential to help students in modern languages – so why isn’t it taught, asks Michelle Sheehan

How much do your students know about linguistics? Probably not much, because linguistics (the scientific study of language) is conspicuously absent from the modern foreign language syllabus in schools. This is a shame, because linguistics has much to offer students.

Linguists have devised an international phonetic alphabet to represent the sounds of human languages in systematic ways, regardless of writing systems. They have also studied ancient documents to trace how modern languages, such as English and French, have developed from older languages like Anglo-Saxon and Latin, uncovering principles of language change and devising theories to model them. They work tirelessly to understand how language is used to encode social meaning and how the grammar and sounds of languages are structured at an abstract level.

It is possible, in the UK, to study an entire degree in linguistics. In fact, some UK universities require their language students to take linguistics modules, or at least actively encourage it.

Why don't we teach linguistics?

So, why is there no linguistics in schools? Well, actually, there is. Since its inception, English language A level has included many linguistic topics. The current syllabus covers sociolinguistic variation, linguistic analysis, phonetics, semantics, pragmatics, language acquisition, stylistics, language change, language attitudes and much more besides.

Contrast this with the content topics for A-level French, Spanish and German, which are, almost without exception, not related to the languages themselves, but rather to their associated literatures, films and cultures. For French, for example, the curriculum covers social topics such as same-sex marriage, diversity and marginalisation, political and artistic topics and literary texts and films. Language comes into the picture only in the form of grammar – a long list of grammatical phenomena which must be mastered to ensure success.

It is quite striking that while English language A level engages with English itself in a nuanced and insightful way, in French A-level, one has the impression that the language is merely a skill, while cultural topics are worth engaging with at an intellectual level.

How can linguistics help pupils?

There are obvious explanations for this difference. English language A level is aimed at native speakers of English, who have already mastered the language, whereas this is usually not true for French, Spanish and German. There is a separate A level in English literature, and this is not the case for the other languages. Clearly, there have to be differences, but in a project run by myself and colleagues at Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge and Queen Mary University of London, we are making the case that the distinction need not be so stark.

Our claim is that alongside cultural and literary topics, the study of French, for example, should include linguistic topics such as "the history of French" and "variation in French".

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, linguistic topics would help to bridge the divide between the language skills and cultural/literary topics of the current A level.

In addition, linguistics, being itself a discipline which straddles the sciences and humanities, has the potential to appeal to different kinds of students, potentially making languages appealing to students who would not otherwise engage with them intellectually.

Finally, linguistics has the potential to help students with their language skills in interesting and nuanced ways. Grammar is not really a list of constructions to be employed; it is an ever-changing system with rules and intricate interactions, used in different ways by different speakers. Understanding this, and how linguistic differences can encode social differences, is an essential skill for anyone wanting to use language authentically.

None of this is to say that culture, literature and film are not fascinating. They are, of course, but so is language itself. 

If you would like to incorporate more linguistics into your teaching, here are some suggestions:

  • Teach your pupils the international phonetic alphabet (IPA), so that they can pronounce words from any language;
  • Introduce your pupils to the notion of grammatical variation by using authentic materials (see our Twitter feed for some suggestions) @InMfl;
  • Take part in the second phase of our pilot, by signing up to teach a mini linguistics course here.

Dr Michelle Sheehan is reader in linguistics at Anglia Ruskin University

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