By Andries W. Coetzee
Oct 06, 2012
Three members of the Linguistics Department (Professors Sally Thomanson and Andries Coetzee, and graduate student Stephen Tyndall) recently spent an enjoyable day at the Hillel Day School in Farmnington Hills, where we were guests of Ms. Jessica Stempek, the 8th grade Language Arts teacher at Hillel. We attended three of Ms. Stempek's 8th grade classes during our visit.
Ms. Stempek is dedicating a portion of this semester of her Language Arts class to the theme of "The Evolution of Language". She is covering all aspects of language, from grammar to writing systems, from the earliest societies (Egypt, Mesopotamia, China) all the way through to the present day. The idea for this theme grew out of an inspiring linguistics class that Ms. Stempek took during her bachelors degree at MSU. This is a testament to how important our undergraduate classes can be!
Our visit to Ms. Stempek's classes coincided with their discussion of the history of writing systems. Stephen Tyndal and Sally Thomason introduced each class by giving a short overview about the origin of writing, and showing how the letter "A" developed through progressive abstraction from a picture of an ox's head. Students then had the opportunity to ask questions, an opportunity that they used enthusiastically. After doing a quick review of Hittite cuneiform writing, we helped Ms. Stempek to distribute clay and wooden styluses to the students. Each student then wrote his or her name in cuneiform on a clay tablet. The students all showed great skill as ancient scribes, and produced veritable master pieces.
In addition to attending Ms. Stempek's classes, we also had the opportunity to share apples and honey with the students and faculty as part of Hillel's Rosh Hashanah celebrations. Andries Coetzee also had an opportunity to sit in on a 7th grade Hebrew class. The class was taught exclusively in Hebrew, except for the occasional English explanation for Andries's sake. In spite of the fact that Andries has an MA degree in Biblical Hebrew, the 7th grade Hillel students clearly have a much better command of the Hebrew language than he does. This is a testament to the success of Hillel's linguistically informed, semi-immersion method of Hebrew instruction.
We had the opportunity to meet several Hillel staff and faculty members, as well as some Hillel parents. We want to thank Ms. Stempek and Hillel for this opportunity to learn about the interesting things that their school is doing, and for the opportunity to introduce middle school children to some of the exciting things that linguists do. Hopefully we will see some of Ms. Stempek's students in our linguistics classes here at Michigan in a few years!