Alternative Intro Ling courses

Johanna Rubba jrubba at
Tue Dec 7 23:00:03 UTC 2010


Is anyone else out there looking for a textbook for intro linguistics for non-majors that does not take an exclusively generative line? Does anyone know of books that deal primarily with aspects of language that are practically useful for non-majors? Well-educated citizens need to know about things like language/dialect prejudice, myths concerning bilingual education, myths concerning first-language acquisition, some information about language history and the history of English, the horrendous state of grammar instruction in our schools, the fakeness of "language experts" like John Simon, propaganda techniques, results of critical discourse analysis concerning things like racism, sexism and heterosexism, language policy, the role of frames/schemas in everyday life, pragmatics and speech acts, a deeper understanding of semantics beyond entailment, implicature, semantic features, utterance vs. sentence meaning, and the "nyms," the role of information flow in discourse structure, and perhaps a basic understanding of how linguistics can be applied to the study of literature (for English majors, at least; most of my intro students are English majors).

I know that a number of these topics are covered in existing textbooks, but a number are not. Also, existing textbooks do a poor job of addressing the lexicon, if they address it at all. The work that has been done on the network model, usage-based models, prototypes, categorization, and the role of schemas/frames in word definition are lacking in most textbooks (some allude to prototype theory, but very cursorily).

Intro textbooks, even those that advertise themselves as being for non-linguists, such as Parker & Riley's _Linguistics for non-linguists_ and Denham and Lobeck's _Linguistics for everyone_, fill their pages mostly with the core subjects (phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and the poor treatment of semantics described above). They do have a significant amount of space devoted to some of the above topics, but I don't think teachers can deal with all of them in a single term (and especially not a ten-week quarter, which it is my fate to teach in). And too many textbooks teach generative theory as god's truth; they address counterarguments minimally, and often by trundling out old data, like island constraints. They bring in data that, from their point of view, prove modularity and Universal Grammar, but they never address specifically any arguments that non-generativists make; they simply say that the data (e.g., genetic language disability or "linguistic savants") prove their theory beyond the shadow of a doubt. One could easily get the impression that they don't think of their theory as theory (whether they intend this or not), but as proven fact, with any challenges not being worthy of their attention.

People are still writing these textbooks as though we are training future linguists who already have an intrinsic interest in the details of language structure. I have ten weeks to give my students their only introduction to the scientific study of language. I don't see any point in these students learning to solve phonology problems or draw tree diagrams  for a tiny fraction of the sentence types that exist in English. I don't see the point of having them learn how to build a linguistic argument based on structural data. I'm not even sure how important it is for them to understand speech articulation in the detail seen in most intro ling textbooks. I'd far prefer that they learn to think critically about the language – and language about language – that exists around them. I'm sure this would engage them far more (my most popular course is Language and Gender). When I do exit surveys in my classes, I ask for the most important single idea they will take away from my course. The vast majority of the students respond with something about dialect prejudice. Many, many say they will never again judge a person based on the way they speak. There may have been some students who have mentioned learning to solve phonology problems or drawing tree diagrams, but I could count them on one hand. Students seem to *want* the understanding of language that they *need*.

It would be interesting to know what most linguists believe is necessary knowledge about language for the non-major. Many, many linguists work at institutions at which they never train graduate students and have teaching loads and service obligations that severely limit their research efforts (like me; I teach nine courses in the typical year, and do an average amount of committee work, which I actually like to do). Many of us teach only courses that require no previous linguistics training. 

I'm teaching intro ling to English majors in winter quarter (starts early Jan.). I'm going to spend my winter break thinking up field exercises or activities that will "sex up" the course. And I'm using Language Files 10th edition. Not a great book, but I haven't found a better one for undergraduates. Finegan's _Language: its structure and use_ covers a lot of the territory I'm looking for, but it's not easily managed on a quarter system, the chapters on phonology and syntax are confusing, and the level may be above what my undergrads can handle.

Any thoughts, suggestions, practices you'd be willing to share? Or: Help!


Dr. Johanna Rubba, Professor, Linguistics
Linguistics Minor Advisor
English Department
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
E-mail: jrubba at
Tel.: 805.756.2184
Dept. Ofc. Tel.: 805.756.2596
Dept. Fax: 805.756.6374

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