Alternative Intro Ling courses

Mark P. Line mark at
Wed Dec 8 17:14:24 UTC 2010

Sounds like you need to write the textbook you envision. I'd teach from it
in a heartbeat if you did (and if I were still teaching).

Failing that, I guess you'd have to continue to wing it with DIY readings
and exercises.

If I remember right, the lecturer who taught intro ling in the English
department where I worked simply pulled together a collection of readings
(probably Saussure, Whorf, Bloomfield, very little from the Chomskyan era)
and came up with his own "exhibits" from newspapers and other media to
make the points he wanted to make (which were similar to your laundry list

Just as a random example, I recall him finding two headlines for the same
story in two different newspapers on the same day, and pointing out the
effect of the grammatical difference between the headlines. I don't
remember the precise example at the time, but it was along the lines of

1. Republicans Block Vote On Free Beer For All Act in Senate
2. Vote On Free Beer For All Act Blocked in Senate

His point, of course, was that passive voice buys you the ability to play
down the agent.

-- Mark

Mark P. Line
Bartlesville, OK

Johanna Rubba wrote:
> Hi,
> 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!
> Best,
> Jo
> 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
> URL:

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