Sociolinguistic Approach

While I was a graduate student, I had the pleasure of working as a teaching assistant for Emory’s Program in Linguistics. I’ve since incorporated some core ideas from linguistics–especially sociolinguistics, the study of the interplay between language and social relations–in both composition and literature classes.

Although the specific teaching objective varies with each class, my overall goal is the same: to help students discover the history, variability, and sheer delight of language. My hope is for students to realize that whatever difficulties they face (be it with grammar or “awkwardness”), rather than individual weaknesses, are patterns that can teach us something about our world.

In some first-year classes, I use a video by the comedy duo Key and Peele to introduce the phenomenon of code-switching, in which someone changes his vocabulary or her accent to blend in.

Students might apply the idea of code-switching to their own writing, as they consider the differences between an essay and, say, a post on Facebook. At the same time, they reflect on the structures of power and prejudice which may underlie the linguistic choices they make. Read some Emory students’ reflections on code-switching at the ENG 101 blog.

As part of “Technology and the Senses,” students researched contemporary slang using the online corpora of Contemporary American English and Global Web-Based English. They traced the shifting meanings and geographical coordinates of literally, y’all, and queer, among other words, and presented their findings in an educational infographic. Corpora have also been shown to be helpful to ESL learners, who can use the keywords in context (KWIC) tool to look up the correct idiomatic phrase for their needs. 1) Bellee Jones-Pierce gave me the idea of using BYU’s corpora in composition classes. Jin Kim (UIUC) has published several student and teacher guides to COCA. See also Randi Reppen, Using Corpora in the Language Classroom (Cambridge UP, 2010).

In my advanced seminar “Inventing Languages” [pdf], we learned about the history of American Sign Language, including controversies surrounding oralism, manualism, and Deaf culturalism, as well as the use of sign languages in human/animal communication. I especially enjoy teaching John Lee Clark’s reflections on translating his own work between English and Sign.2) John Lee Clark, ed., Deaf American Poetry: An Anthology (Washington, DC: Gallaudet UP, 2009); and contributions to Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (El Paso: Cinco Puntos, 2011). See also Andrew Solomon, “Defiantly Deaf” (reprinted in Far from the Tree, and H-Dirksen L. Bauman, et al, eds., Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature (Berkeley: U of California P, 2006; book and DVD).

In the same class, we took up the question of computer speech, and whether or not code should be considered a language, through a discussion of John Searle’s criticism of (1980s-era) AI theory and Daniel Dennett’s minimalist defense of the Turing test. 3) Searle, “Is the Brain’s Mind a Computer Program?” (Scientific American 262.1 [1990]: 26-31); Dennett, “Can Machines Think?” in Stuart Shieber, ed., The Turing Test: Verbal Behavior as the Hallmark of Intelligence (Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2004).

References   [ + ]

1. Bellee Jones-Pierce gave me the idea of using BYU’s corpora in composition classes. Jin Kim (UIUC) has published several student and teacher guides to COCA. See also Randi Reppen, Using Corpora in the Language Classroom (Cambridge UP, 2010).
2. John Lee Clark, ed., Deaf American Poetry: An Anthology (Washington, DC: Gallaudet UP, 2009); and contributions to Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (El Paso: Cinco Puntos, 2011). See also Andrew Solomon, “Defiantly Deaf” (reprinted in Far from the Tree, and H-Dirksen L. Bauman, et al, eds., Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature (Berkeley: U of California P, 2006; book and DVD).
3. Searle, “Is the Brain’s Mind a Computer Program?” (Scientific American 262.1 [1990]: 26-31); Dennett, “Can Machines Think?” in Stuart Shieber, ed., The Turing Test: Verbal Behavior as the Hallmark of Intelligence (Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2004).