by Molly Babel, Linguistics
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2008
Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology (Linguistics 110) is a challenging course to teach for the same reason that makes it a demanding class for students: the necessary breadth of the course material bridges all possible sub-disciplines in linguistics. The class is complete with physics and math, abstract linguistic theory, and individual fieldwork elicitation with a native speaker of a language. Many undergraduates are initially drawn to linguistics by only one of these diverse topics. But, since Linguistics 110 is a requirement for the major, all students end up in the class eventually. As such, I find the largest problem in teaching a class like Linguistics 110 is keeping the intellectually split student body focused, interested, and comprehending the material at hand. I have found the key to this problem is to provide students with theoretically relevant real-world linguistic examples. The best approach is to externalize the analysis process such that it becomes transparent and accessible – while still challenging and riveting – to all students.
My most effective example of this methodology was initially implemented early in the semester in the discussion of vowel chain shifts in English. For this lesson, I presented a two-minute clip of the HBO program, Flight of the Conchords. This program is about two New Zealander musicians living in New York City. The variety of English spoken in New Zealand is undergoing a vocalic chain shift that, for example, makes the words dead and did homophones. The audio-video clip contained a number of examples of vowels that are dramatically shifted with respect to the vowel systems of my American English speaking students. The students’ task was to use the International Phonetic Alphabet to transcribe both the pronunciations of the New Zealanders and how they would pronounce it themselves. Students shared their transcriptions with the class and then plotted the New Zealand vowel space as compared to their own. Collaboratively, students then made the observation that the New Zealand vowel space was undergoing a chain shift exactly as predicted. In addition, as part of the exercise, I shared with the students a recent article on vowel shifts in New Zealand English (Hay & Maclagan, 2007). Students were very keen on the idea that they had independently “discovered” a fact about spoken language that merits publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
The student response to this exercise was tremendous. After class, one student commented that this exercise illustrated that “Linguistics is everywhere!” Another student emailed a few days later after encountering a New Zealand woman in one of his classes. He noted that her vowel space was exactly as we had discovered in class and thanked me for making the subject material relevant to real world language use.
The Flight of the Conchords exercise is but one example of many that were used in my sections to externalize the analysis process and bridge the discipline gap. No two students will ever find the same material equally intriguing, but by whetting the intellectual appetite of students through the use of pertinent and comprehensible examples, all students will inevitably be looking for linguistics outside of the classroom. That, in and of itself, must be considered a successful outcome. And that’s exactly what we dead … I mean, did.