Book suggestions

Tom Givon tgivon at
Fri Dec 24 01:58:14 UTC 2010

Dear Johannah

My reservations are not about what the book has, but what it DOESN'T--my 
entire field of inquiry. So if what I have been studying for the past 45 
years (syntax, discourse, stylistics, communication, diachronic syntax, 
1st & 2nd language acquisition, psycholinguistics, neuro-linguistics, 
evolutionary psychology, creoles/pidgins, evolutionary anthropology, 
philosophy of language, intellectual history...)  is not relevant to 
"Language" or "Linguistics",  then either I have been deluding myself 
all these years, or else the selected name, be it "Language" or 
"Linguistics", is somehow, extravagantly ,inappropriate.  Cheers and/or 
Merry Christmas,  TG


On 12/23/2010 6:17 PM, Johanna Rubba wrote:
> 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 students.
> 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 would.
> 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
> URL:

More information about the Funknet mailing list