“I’ve learned more about myself and my language and the role language plays overall, including how it impacts identity.” — From a program course evaluation
Students examine language as a vital part of culture and social structure while discovering how it reflects and shapes our lives. The course first explores the components of language (phonemes, morphemes, words, and sentences). It then tackles assumptions and myths we hold about language. For example, do men and women really speak differently? What exactly is Ebonics? Do Eskimo languages have 17 separate words for snow? Thus, students investigate both the structure and cultural functions of human language.
Students employ a multi-disciplinary approach to investigating language behavior and variation in different cultures. This occurs mainly through the term project, which provides each student the opportunity to conduct fieldwork as a means to research his or her own culture and its use of language. Students come to better understand themselves as members of their own culture and language as a shaper of our self-identities in human society.
Students work with material in a seminar format in the morning sessions. Afternoons are devoted to fieldwork and other hands-on applications including probing popular culture, literature, and film for evidence of language used as a way to define cultural and social identities. We visit linguistically diverse New York neighborhoods and explore cultural exhibits around the city related to language. Guest speakers offer other views of language and culture across disciplines.
Students develop the skills of data collection and cross-linguistic and cross-cultural analysis and come away with a perspective of multiple viewpoints related to language correctness and relativity.
Please note: Though this course is intended primarily for older students, it is also open to highly qualified rising freshmen and sophomores.
Susan J. Behrens holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from Brown University. She has taught issues of language and speech to all ages, in New York and abroad. Her books include Grammar: A Pocket Guide, Language in the Real World: An Introduction to Linguistics, and Understanding Language Use in the Classroom. She is a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Marymount Manhattan College, director of Marymount’s Teaching Center, and an associate of the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard College.