Taking Linguistics Outside the Classroom
March 31, 2014 | by Brian Short
When a boy—let’s call him Logan—was diagnosed with phonological dyslexia, his parents were faced with some difficult choices. Logan was struggling at school, but treatment for phonological dyslexia—a form of the disorder in which the sufferer can memorize and recall whole words but struggles to read new words, foreign words, or acronyms—can be expensive, costing $15,000 a year or more.
Logan’s parents weren’t sure they could afford the treatments. Then they learned about an opportunity that allowed Logan to work with LSA linguistics students to improve Logan’s reading skills for free.
The program is part of the Department of Linguistics’ Experiential Practicum course. It is “intensive,” requiring focus and hard work from both instructors and students. But when everyone is fully engaged in the process, the results can be incredible. By the time Logan finished the year-and-a-half-long program, his reading ability had advanced several grade levels.
In February of this year, Elaine McNulty, a lecturer in the Linguistics Department who runs the Experiential Practicum course, received a letter from Logan’s mother, thanking McNulty for all of her and her students’ help.
“Logan has found a lot of success in school,” McNulty says. “It’s just so gratifying to hear that he’s doing well.”
Theory into Practice
The Experiential Practicum course places students in a number of different community settings where language expertise is sorely needed. Because language is vital to so many projects and endeavors, students can choose from a broad range of opportunities, ranging from cochlear implant facilities to ESL tutoring programs to speech pathology centers.
“Language permeates everything,” McNulty continues, “so students end up participating in all kinds of projects. We had one student researching the genetic sources of deafness in a genetics lab. We’ve had students working with community theaters, teaching people how to use dialects for performance. They can participate and contribute in a lot of different settings.”
Students often use the practicum to learn about post-graduate careers in linguistics and to apply knowledge that they’ve been accruing since the beginning of their college career.
LSA’s Department of Linguistics was founded in 1963, amid a national upsurge in interest in the discipline. The department—among the largest in the country according to Department Chair Patrice Beddor, the John C. Catford Collegiate Professor of Linguistics—has a strong foundation in all aspects of linguistics study, including theoretical exploration and practical observation. LSA linguists are in the field documenting languages and in the lab using ultrasound machines to visualize how people use their tongues to articulate words.
“We teach in a way that aims to integrate a range of topics in linguistics,” Beddor says. “We are always working to draw students into a really broad way of thinking about the discipline.”
Throughout the department’s history, the discipline appears in places where you’d expect it, such as instruction about language, and places where you wouldn’t: helping law enforcement through forensic linguistics and treating disorders that affect our ability to communicate or comprehend language.
“Our students know an incredible amount about language,” McNulty says. “For instance, if a third-grade student from Russia is struggling to read or say something in English, our students can help by explaining why the child is making that particular mistake because they can compare the two languages.
“Our students know sound systems very well. They understand speech pathology, they understand language acquisition,” McNulty says. “People love working with us because our students are such a great resource.” And McNulty’s course is a place where that resource is hard at work.
Cover photo by Feng Yu/Shutterstock. Photo (top) by Lithiumphoto/Shutterstock. Ultrasound image courtesy of Patrice Beddor.