Book suggestions

Johanna Rubba jrubba at
Fri Dec 24 01:17:36 UTC 2010

Thanks for your input, Tom. I would be perfectly happy to change the  
name of the course to "Introduction to Language." I will probably  
propose that, in fact. In any case, I did say that I would most  
likely use the book alongside a structure-oriented book.

I'm teaching undergraduates at a state university; this is a  
sophomore-level course. It's a ten-week course; it's the only  
exposure to the scientific study of language that virtually all of  
these students will have. These students do not have a broad or deep  
cultural background; they don't know much, if anything, about  
philosophy, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, etc. And it's  
not my job to teach them all that. In addition, 99% of my students  
will not go on to become linguists. They also have had so little  
exposure to English grammar that they lack a way of thinking  
scientifically or in any orderly way about language; the linguistics  
approach is *alien* to them (and I mean that in the Martian sense).  
It would be nice if I could cultivate our way of viewing language in  
ten weeks, but it just ain't gonna happen for the vast majority of my  

A college education is supposed to prepare students to enter the  
world as informed and responsible citizens. They will be teaching  
children, hiring people, associating with colleagues and meeting new  
people, forming families and raising children, voting on language  
issues, traveling the world, hearing propaganda. Part of my job is to  
equip them with both information and the tools to make sound  
judgments about language in all these activities.

Now, will discovering minimal pairs in LuiseƱo or Swahili help them  
with that? Will diagramming a tiny array of English sentence types  
help them with that? Will learning the phonetic alphabet help them  
with that? Do they need to know about island constraints to make  
sound judgments about language in their futures? Do they need to hear  
arguments about the poverty of the stimulus in 1st language  
acquisition? All of that is, of course, crucially interesting to us,  
and, of course to that tiny number of students who become fascinated  
by these things and want to look into them. Of the hundreds of  
students I've taught this year, one is applying to grad school for  
linguistics. Same last year. In my fifteen years here I have mentored  
about a dozen or so senior projects. My colleagues have done hundreds.

I have ten weeks; I must do triage. I want to disabuse them of those  
popular myths. I also want to engage them. The remarks I get on my  
student evaluations are interesting. A number of them say things  
along the lines of 'she did a great job with the course, but what do  
you want, it's linguistics and I'm an English major.' I have often  
had my students do exit surveys. I ask them, among other things, for  
the single most important thing they have learned in the course. A  
good 85% percent of them routinely answer 'I will never again judge  
somebody based on the dialect they speak.' If anyone mentioned tree  
diagrams or phonology problems, the number was so vanishingly small  
that I don't remember any. There is a huge difference in response to  
my Language and Gender course: "it opened me up to the other side of  
the world"; "I will never look at language the same way again"; the  
course made them aware of the still-deep stereotypes and prejudices  
regarding gender and language. It also teaches them a great deal  
about how language functions in categorizing people, defining and  
naming, in passing on cultural assumptions about gender to subsequent  
generations, etc. It also impacts their own lives and their own  
usage. Many say that they'll be watching their language, and even  
calling out friends who use sexist language. One of my students this  
year, as a result of the course, became an Ally (a supporter of LGBTQ  
students on campus) and began going to our Pride Club's meetings (and  
he's not gay). He also began to see how the masculinity norms he has  
been held to all his life have troubled him; he has begun to revise  
his concept of his own masculinity so that it includes things like  
his love of cooking and of children. I am astounded at the effects my  
teaching has on these students, and it makes me love what I do. I  
don't love going to my intro class and trying to convince students  
that phrase structure is fascinating. It's dull for me, and for them.  
If I were teaching linguistics majors, I would love it, because they  

I can't imagine what objections you would have to chapters like  
Language ideology and language prejudice, Language planning, language  
policy, and the English-only movement, Native American languages,  
American English: its origins and history. Sure, some of the chapters  
are sexy, like The language of cyberspace and a chapter on slang. But  
people are curious about the language of cyberspace, language  
fussbudgets (including teachers) say it's ruining the language, etc.  
People broadly do not understand the valid and important role slang  
plays in social grouping. And, of course, I didn't give a full list  
of the chapters.

I hope you can now see how I must adapt my teaching to my educational  
context.  99.9% of my students forget how to draw a tree diagram or  
how to render a word in phonetic symbols the day after they take  
their final exam. That's not a fulfilling prospect for me, and it  
certainly does not benefit them in any way at all.

Dr. Johanna Rubba, Ph. D.
Professor, Linguistics
Linguistics Minor Advisor
English Dept.
Cal Poly State University San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo, CA 93407
Ofc. tel. : 805-756-2184
Dept. tel.: 805-756-2596
Dept. fax: 805-756-6374
E-mail: jrubba at

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