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Chalkboard with Different Languages

Thematic Units

For the first several years of teaching linguistics as an elective, I organized the curriculum the way I was familiar with from introductory linguistics: start with phonology, morphology, and syntax, do some psycholinguistics, pragmatics, and historical linguistics, and wrap up with sociolinguistics. 

Then in 2020, I completely revamped the curriculum; instead of it being organized by topic, I decided to organize it by theme. (I go into more detail about that process in my blog.) I considered the big questions or problems that linguistics can help answer, and I taught the linguistic concepts that students could use to inquire into those questions or problems. 

For each unit below, I've included essential questions, lessons and activities, recommended readings/videos/podcasts, and the linguistic concepts students learn about to access and inquire into those essential questions. I'll explain more about some of the lessons or approaches in my blog as I go. Some of these units are new, so they're under construction.

You can skip to the units here:

Descriptivism & Prescriptivism in the Public Sphere

True Biz: Language Development & Linguistic Identity


Speaking "American": The Myth of an American Language

Black Language on Trial

Policing Bodies, Policing Voices: Gender, Language, and the Media

Marketing and Manipulation

Politics, Fanaticism, and Language

Vocabulary (Etymology and Morphology)

Book Clubs


Descriptivism & Prescriptivism in the Public Sphere

Unit 1: Descriptivism & Prescriptivism in the Public Sphere

Essential Questions: 

  • Where do our attitudes and beliefs about language come from?

  • How do our attitudes and beliefs about language reflect our perceptions of speakers of different language varieties?

  • How are language ideologies perpetuated by institutions like pop culture, social media, and education?

  • How is the internet changing the ways we use language?

Linguistics topics & terms

  • Linguistic descriptivism and prescriptivism

  • Language ideology

  • Properties of human language

  • Linguistic knowledge

  • The arbitrariness of the sign

  • The creative property of language

  • Sentences and nonsentences

  • The linguistic definition of grammar / mental grammar

  • Usage, mechanics

  • Types of prescriptivism (Curzan)

  • Standardized English

  • Academic English

  • A brief history of the English language

Novel study: True Biz

Unit 2: True Biz: Language Development and Linguistic Identity 

Essential Questions: 

  • What does True Biz illustrate about the connections among language, identity, and culture, especially in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community?

  • How do people develop language? What do signed and spoken languages have in common in terms of grammar and development, and how are they different?

  • What is language deprivation (and what is it not)? What effect does language deprivation have on people, individually and culturally?

Lessons, Activities, Assessments

This is a new unit! More info coming soon!

Readings & media

Linguistics topics & terms

  • Grammar

  • Universal grammar

  • Language development stages

  • Language centers in the brain

  • Lateralization

  • Plasticity

  • Expressive and receptive language

  • The innateness hypothesis

  • The critical period hypothesis

  • Syntax

  • Morphology

  • The Wug Test

  • Black ASL


Unit 3: Multilingualism

Essential Questions: 

  • How do people learn a second language?

  • How has our understanding of multilingualism changed over time?

  • How does being multilingual impact a person's identity and experience of the world? 

Lessons, Activities, Assessments

Readings & media

Linguistics topics & terms

  • Language domains (expressive and receptive) 

  • Simultaneous and sequential bilingualism

  • Compound, coordinate, and subordinate bilingual

  • Codeswitching / Translanguaging

  • Transfer (positive and negative)

Speaking "American": The Myth of an American Language

Unit 4: Speaking "American": The Myth of the American Language

Essential Questions: 

  • What is the history of language in America?

  • How are languages related? How did they evolve?

  • How does a history of language reflect systems of power, colonization, and racism?

Readings & media

Linguistics topics & terms

  • The English-only movement in America

  • Comparative & historical linguistics

  • Language families

  • Proto-Indo-European

  • Language change

  • Grimm's Law

  • Indigenous languages

  • Language extinction / dormancy

  • Speech community

  • Register

  • Style / register shift

  • Isogloss

  • Pidgin

  • Creole

  • Regionalism

  • Language variety, Accent, Dialect

  • Language Ideology

  • Prestige dialect / language

  • Linguistic security & insecurity

  • Jargon, Slang

  • Standardized American English

  • the Northern Cities Vowel Shift,

  • language and social class

  • Labov's department store experiment

  • linguistic disruptors

Black Lanuage on Trial

Unit 5: Black Language on Trial

Essential Questions: 

  • What is Black Language, and how did it develop in the US?

  • What grammatical, lexigraphical, and phonological features make it a distinct language / dialect?

  • How does linguistic profiling reproduce racist power structures?

  • How do marginalized voices contribute to mainstream / popular culture, and what issues arise when those voices are appropriated?

Linguistics topics & terms

  • Black Language & terminology (AAVE, AAE, etc.)

  • grammar; syntax

  • habitual be

  • copula drop

  • -g dropping; -s deletion

  • history of Black Language

  • Creoles

  • the Great Migration

  • linguistic appropriation

  • the Oakland Ebonics controversy

  • the Ann Arbor decision

  • John Baugh's housing experiment

  • code-switching / translanguaging 

Gender & Language

Unit 6: Policing Bodies, Policing Voices: Gender, Language, and the Media  (under construction)

Essential Questions: 

  • How are gender and language discussed in the media?

  • How has the study of language and gender evolved 

  • How do advertisers use gendered language and images to manipulate consumers’ buying habits?

  • How is the English language gendered?

Linguistics topics & terms

  • Genderlect

  • hedging

  • uptalk (high-rising terminal)

  • vocal fry (creaky voice)

  • linguistic disruptors

  • Polari, argot

  • conversation styles

  • interruption

  • politeness

  • positive and negative face

  • positive and negative politeness

  • face-threatening act

  • turn-taking

Marketing & Manipulation

Unit 7: Marketing and Manipulation (under construction)

Essential Questions: 

  • How do marketers and advertisers use language and images to influence the way we think?

  • How do creators manipulate perspective to appeal to specific audiences? 

  • How do social media companies use algorithms to manipulate attention?

Lessons, Activities, Assessments

Readings & media

Linguistics topics & terms

Politics, Fanaticism,& language

Unit 8: Politics, Fanaticism, and Language (incomplete)

Essential Questions: 

  • How do politicians, activists, and the media manipulate language and images to persuade?

  • What is the origin, evolution, and the meaning of the term “cancel culture” and does it matter?

  • Can media and audiences ever truly be “unbiased?” Is bias bad?

  • How do “fringe” or “cult-like” groups attract, keep, and manipulate people?

Readings & media

Linguistics topics & terms

Semantics, pragmatics, linguistic determinism, linguistic relativism, semantic field, framing, collocation, pejoration, connotation, metaphor, euphemism, definiteness, deixis, the Cooperative Principle, Grice's maxims, maxim clash, violating / flouting a maxim, presupposition, implicature, dogwhistle, semantic prosody, speech acts (including locutionary, illocutionary, perlocutionary), direct & indirect speech acts, felicity conditions, plausible deniability, polysemy


Ongoing Unit: Vocabulary

Essential Questions: 

  • How do new words come into a language, and how do lexicons evolve?

  • How can we break an unknown word up into its component parts to make an educated guess about its meaning?

  • How can we use etymology and linguistic innovation in our writing to choose words that are clear, expressive, and compelling?

Readings & media

Linguistics topics & terms

  • Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, Modern English

  • How words change (broaden, narrow, ameliorate, pejorate, bleach, metonymy)

  • Morphology

  • Morpheme

  • Lexicon

  • Content words & function words

  • Inflection

  • Free & bound morphemes

  • Bound roots

  • Borrowed words

  • Colonization

  • How morphemes make new words (derivation, back formation, compounding, blending)

  • Rebracketing

  • Affixes (prefixes, suffixes, infixes, circumfixes

  • Reduplication

  • The Wug Test


Miscellaneous Resources

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