Teaching Linguistics to Students of Foreign Languages

Date: 7 December, 2001
Location: Salford University
Event type: Seminar

Event report

In the benchmarking statement for Linguistics it is noted that of all the 645 courses offering Linguistics only 19 are taught as single honours programmes while over 200 consist of the combination of Linguistics with a language, many of which are taught outside a named Linguistics department. In addition to this there is some anecdotal evidence that in Modern Languages departments currently suffering something of a recruitment 'crisis' to the more language/literature course, Linguistics units and programmes are flourishing. With this in mind the Subject Centre held a seminar to discuss the role of Linguistics within modern languages programmes and to address the questions of why, what, where and how Linguistics should be taught in this context. Needless to say the ensuing case studies and keynotes gave answers that were both interesting and varied. The day consisted of the following keynote presentations and case studies.

In the first keynote Paul Rowlett (University of Salford) outlined the approach at Salford where Linguistics is given equal standing with Languages and has been seen as a way of helping to check the decline in take up of Modern Languages by offering students a choice of course in order to cater for those who are mainly interested in Linguistics but wish to combine this with language study and those with slightly more language-focused interests. This way students are not always studying linguistics to improve their language skills but might be studying a language (namely ab initio Japanese) to help them with their linguistics. So far the signs are good and numbers are growing.

The second keynote, Florence Myles (University of Southampton) took up the issue of why students should be studying linguistics as part of an mfl degree. She argued that as well as supporting language learning and recruitment to language programmes the teaching of Linguistics will produce graduates with the competence and confidence to teach the subject in schools. The current decline in numbers of teachers, she feels, may in part be the result of the trend in languages to produce communicatively competent graduates who nevertheless lack knowledge about the language and have little awareness of the process of language learning.

In her keynote Jeanine Treffers-Daller (UWE, Bristol) argued that the teaching of linguistics to modern language (developing bilingual) students necessitates a different approach to that taken on courses where Linguistics is part of a single or joint honours programme (mainly taught to monolingual students). For this reason she considers that there should be an emphasis on those aspects of linguistics that are complementary to their experience: second language acquisition and sociolinguistics. These aspects, she feels, contribute well to their development as aware language learners and help them to understand issues such as bilingualism and multiculturalism.

In case study one Roger Wright (University of Liverpool) described an approach that teaches both general and language (Spanish) specific linguistics to students of Hispanic Studies. For single honours students the first year introductory (general) course is compulsory while there are options to take more language-related options in the final year. Students are also encouraged to build on their skills and understanding by choosing placements in Spanish universities where Linguistics is taught. The key emphasis throughout is very firmly on using Linguistics to understand Spanish.

Case study two presented the materials developed by Simon Gieve and Szilvia Papp ( University of Portsmouth) to teach a module in linguistic description. This is taught through a combination of lectures, seminars and weekly tasks which the students submit as a 'Portfolio'. While the lectures are based on the analysis of English in the tasks the students undertake a comparative analysis with another language using a native speaker 'informant' to help them. The students not only choose the language they are studying (French, German etc.) but some will elect to work with languages that they do not know (e.g. Arabic or Japanese). The students complete the tasks using worksheets which guide them through the collection and analysis of the data they are collecting from their informat as they work through the different elements of the course.

In his presentation (case study 3) David Hornsby outlined very effectively the challenges of introducing a Linguistics element into a 'traditional' (language and literature) course. Convincing the students was the easy part, he said, but persuading colleagues of the merits of Linguistics for students of French was far from easy. However now that his course in the History and Structure of French is up and running the high number of students taking it and the impact on their language learning is, he says, turning the tide in favour of Linguistics. He feels that, in taking this course students not only become more confident in their language, but are able to engage with more general linguistic issues and to be reflective about their own perceptions of the language learning process.

In the final case study Jim Miller (Edinburgh) described a course he teaches to students of Russian where the selection of what Linguistics to teach reflects particular problems that students have with Russian language. So the curriculum is not focussed on linguistic theory, as is often the case in a general linguistics course, but on the aspect, case and transitivity systems of Russian. The course also compares the very different descriptive traditions of Russian and 'Anglo-Saxon' grammarians so that students can understand both grammars of Russian in English, but also grammars of Russian in Russian. The course reflects both these descriptive traditions, and students are encouraged to apply the theories they are learning to the target language.

This rich exchange of ideas, programmes and materials effectively demonstrated that Linguistics is a discipline that can (and many would argue should) be integrated more widely into modern language programmes but that how this should be done and what elements should be selected are as diverse as the discipline itself. What does seem clear, however, is that the opportunity to study Linguistics does meet with approval from languages students and in the battle for hearts, minds and most importantly bums on seats that could be the best argument of all!