Friday, 28 March 2014

Why everyone who works with language needs linguistics

Someone on a blog I read the other day posted this question, asking for advice:
Does anyone know any tricks to know when English -ed is pronounced as [d~t] as in “begged” and “knocked” versus [ed] like “petted”?
Some of my students have issues and I don’t know how to help them.
(I haven't linked to the actual blog because I don't want to seem like I'm criticising them personally.)

You might think that people who teach language know linguistics. Most people seem to think that linguistics *is* teaching languages. In fact, lots of linguistics graduates go on to do language teaching, but they are far outnumbered by language teachers who don't have a linguistics background. TESOL MA programmes frequently have a core linguistics component, but people who've chosen to do TESOL but not linguistics are probably not that interested in linguistics anyway.

The reason I mention this is that the question above is taught on any first-year linguistics course as the absolute go-to example of phonologically-conditioned allomorphy in English. Typically, we point out that native English speakers do this subconsciously and consistently, and it's an example of how there are rules and we can discover them by careful investigation, as well as to teach the theoretical concept.

Of course, speakers of other languages with different rules will not do this subconsciously, because the rules of their language might not automatically force the same result as English. They'll need the rule taught to them. The fact that someone who (presumably) is teaching English doesn't know how to explain this simple fact is quite shocking to me, but I doubt the asker is alone. A few basic linguistics classes would make life as an English teacher so much easier, I can't even imagine why it wouldn't be standard.


  1. I taught dozens of phonology sessions when I worked in Greece on the Cambridge ESOL certificate and diploma courses back in the 90s, and midwifed loads of research projects on teaching pronunciation. Then last month I observed lessons taught by four MA TEFL candidates at the UK university where I work and they were CLUELESS. The standard of EFL teaching these days is so crap I'm almost ashamed to be part of the so-called 'profession' .

  2. No wonder most language schools pay so badly. Peanuts and monkeys come to mind.

  3. There's an alternative to criticism: You might share a linguistics-based approach to teaching some of the ostensible irregularities of English that are rooted in its deeper structure. That would be enormously helpful to ESL teachers and even spark their interest in linguistics. As for me, I'm a newly certified adult ESL teacher with a passion for language and languages. I took several linguistics courses in college and wish I had taken more! I'm in my 60s, so it may be a bit on the late side...

    1. Good for you - it's never too late. (Bit patronising, sorry. But I mean it.) That's partly what this blog is for: to spread the linguistics love. I spend at least 60 hours a week teaching it in my day job, but if I can get a few more people interested in the way language actually works, I'm a happy linguistics blogger. I'll try and do a few posts on how the weirdness of English is really totally not weird in the near future.

      But I can't help with a linguistics-based approach to teaching English, because I'm, sadly, not trained at all in TESOL. I expect there are blogs out there doing that, though. Or if you want to start one, let me know if I can help!