Sunday, September 9, 2012

Phonology and undergraduate education

AKA:  Why Phonology should be a required course for all undergraduates

Most undergraduate linguistics majors will not become professional linguists.  That's a good thing.  The job market is tough enough as it is :-)  But I want to write about what skills these undergraduates get that can apply to the other domains of their life in a way that is relevant.  Hopefully, this can be part of a series.  But I want to make sure I cover what I think is the most important piece of an linguistics undergrad's education-- phonology.

Linguistic undergraduates struggle the most with phonology.  I know that there are certainly individual exceptions or perhaps larger groups that excel, but overall I suspect that your average undergraduate struggles the most in phonology.  Why?

I think it is a complicated question, but the hypothesis I've come up with doesn't necessarily paint a pretty picture for the state of undergraduate education globally.  I think phonology requires a level of comfort with dealing with the unfamiliar that students simply aren't receiving elsewhere.  Students struggle with phonology because there are typically multiple paths to the correct answer; they must create, analyze and evaluate each of these paths.  Individually, these are skills that students develop elsewhere-- it is tying them all together that seems so problematic.

Also, because there are often multiple paths, there are can be multiple "correct" answers.  Or, at the very least, fundamentally different answers on a scale of "correct".  This is a huge challenge for students used to a call and response style of education.

Overall, I think linguistics does a good job globally of developing these skills.  But I believe it is particularly pronounced in phonology.  I've taught or am teaching an undergraduate course on every major subarea except phonetics. All of them have something unique and important to offer, no class in a linguistics program is unnecessary or not useful.  But I will take syntax (though semantics could work as well) as a comparison.

Syntax and phonology pedagogy share a lot in common.  Typically, students deal with an increasingly challenging set of problems over the course of a term and with each set and accompanying discussion they develop the (toy) framework developed in the course.  So, we could ask what makes them different?

To my mind, because Syntax has so much accompanying formalism and theoretic grounding homework problems and other exercises tend to be more like high schools math problems.  There is a straightforward mechanism for solving the problem.  There is a limited set of correct answers.  Sure, syntax instructors normally throw an open-ended challenge problem or two at students, but a student can easily pass syntax by just learning how to properly apply the principles learned in class.  (Not that this is necessarily EASY.  Nor is it unimportant by any stretch.)

But how does this compare to phonology?  When I teach phonology and when I have seen it taught the formalism tends to be much more minimal than what is required in Syntax.  Many instructors (myself included) stick with formalism out of SPE.  Others cover OT as well-- but even then, there is considerably less formal "baggage" (for lack of a better word).  Students more or less get all the formalism they will need within the first few weeks  (obviously, the formalism advances throughout the course as well but at a much slower pace).  Students are essentially asked to do a lot more with a lot less.  The burden of advancing their understanding comes not so much from lecture, but from solving problems themselves.

So while there is typically only one correct way to draw a syntactic tree (barring ambiguity), there may be multiple paths to deriving a allophonic distribution.  Typically there is one "best" path (though not always).The challenge to the student is to develop these paths and evaluate them.  This is not easy.  And students often come in complacent in the idea that just applying some principles should be sufficient.  It isn't.

For every proposed solution we have (in phonology, in life).  We must always compare the alternatives and evaluate them appropriately.  This idea seems to terrify students when they first walk into a phonology class. Though, I'm very glad that they walk in.  I wish more would.


  1. I like this punske. I shall share it (along with some commentary) with my students.

    1. Thanks Jordan! I'd love to get your comments and your students reactions!