Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tying Linguistics to Holidays

As an elementary school teacher now I find myself doing something I never really used to do as much when teaching linguistics: tying my lessons to current holidays. However, I was struck watching one of my colleagues show a video of Walter Cronkite's report of Martin Luther King's assassination to her class.



If this is your first or second week back in the semester and you are still introducing concepts to your students about what linguistics is and what studying its various branches entails, there is a lot you could do with this video to hook your audience by bringing in something that is meaningful and timely to them. First of all, you could introduce the concept of semantics by pointing out the subtleties of some of the words Cronkite uses: "Negro" could open up a wide discussion about what words have historically been appropriate or inappropriate, and students may have a variety of personal experiences with and opinions about racial terms that they may be willing to open up and talk about; you could also tie this in with recent outrage over censorship of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, making parallels between the question of "who has the authority to decide matters about language" and the distinction between prescriptivism and descriptivism. There is also a more hidden bit of intrigue in the Cronkite report when he uses the word "murder" to refer to the assassination; you could discuss the implications of using words such as "murder" rather than "killing" or "shooting" and talk about what attitudes they reveal about the speaker towards the topic he is talking about.

You could also use a comparison and contrast of speakers in the clip to illustrate points about sociolinguistics and dialectal difference. All three of the main speakers in the clip (Cronkite, Johnson, and King) are southerners, and two of them (the former) lived all or most of their youth in Texas. You might point out the differences in occupation that contribute to what the viewer hears in these clips (newsreader speech and the so-called "broadcast standard," King's experience as a preacher), but you can also use Cronkite and Johnson to showcase the fact that language is much more complex than just being a matter of regional differences. For example, Cronkite was born in Missouri and grew up in the more urban Houston area, attending a larger university (the University of Texas at Austin), while Johnson was from a more rural background and went to a slightly smaller college. If you have more time, considering the popular opinions that people once had about Cronkite and LBJ may give you the opportunity to discuss whether prestige is based entirely, or even in part, on the way people talk, or whether people who disliked LBJ were able to base those opinions solely and without linguistic bias on his policies. These kinds of tie-ins would not only help students to connect the discipline of linguistics to something that is more real to them, but would also enrich younger students' grasp of Cronkite's and Johnson's respective places in our understanding of political history. I'll be trying to think of more ways to connect linguistics to the calendar, and if you come up with any more, I encourage you to share!

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