July 3, 2020

How can Linguistics help in Education?


It may well be thought that Linguistics, the study of human language in the abstract, has little relevance to education in schools. However, this perception is wrong. Linguistics has a great deal to offer in education, and in the following, I will attempt to detail why.

First, of course, it has an immediate relevance to teaching foreign languages. The first difficulty a student may encounter in learning a foreign language is the sounds. However, there is an International Phonetic Alphabet (the IPA) in which there is a symbol for every sound in every language in the world. If students are taught the IPA, and grasped the pronunciation of different sounds, the difficult words in another language can be written phonetically, and the students can practice them until perfect!

Then there is the question of grammar. Many students will find it difficult to cope with the fact that concepts in English can be expressed in radically different ways in other languages. Although all humans are exposed to the same physical facts of the world – location in space, change over time, duration over time, movement – these things can be encoded in languages in very different ways. Teaching students the relation between language and cognition, and the fact that the underlying core meaning of different grammatical structures is the same can be a great help, and is certainly better for them than learning a set of rules which they don’t fully understand.

The same issues arise when learning English. There is, of course, no ‘correct’ grammar for any language, and many students will speak a dialect which is quite different from Standard English. It will be helpful to teach them Standard English as though it was another language, and emphasise that this is the dialect which everyone can understand, and hence the most useful for communication and employment, rather than anything that is more ‘correct’. Students can also be taught that no language is ever an unchanging monolithic entity, but that languages constantly change, and were not the same in the past as they are now – consider the use of ‘don’t’ in Dickens, for example, where a modern speaker would say ‘doesn’t’, or Shakespeare’s use of double negatives, now not allowed in Standard English. There is also an interesting overlap here with history. Students may be very interested to learn that after 1066 large numbers of French words entered English, and that French was the official language of the country for 300 years.

The subject is also a great help in teaching analytical and logical thinking. Comprehension frequently relies on an understanding of the relationships between words. It is necessary to know that word X is related in meaning to word Y, but is opposite in meaning to word Z, and that different sentences may use different words and grammatical structures but mean the same thing. Similarly, a text is not an unconnected series of sentences but involves logical and causal connections between them, from which it is possible to make inferences. For example, if we are told that the Russians and the Japanese went to war again in 1945, we know that the claim: ‘this was the first time the two countries had gone to war’ must be wrong. The presence of ‘again’ tells us that.

Even in non-verbal reasoning, the analytic approach of linguistics is a help. In Linguistics, we are used to breaking down texts, sentences and concepts into their core components. Once this skill is learned, it can be carried over to other aspects of reasoning, such as the non-verbal reasoning tests in the 11+ exam, where it is necessary to examine every single feature.

Thus, Linguistics has a vital role to play in every aspect of education, and it would be a great idea if it was taught in schools more often.