Teaching About Truths vs. Beliefs in Linguistics

Miriam Butt (University of Konstanz) and Gillian Ramchand (University of Tromsø)

Students tend to want simple information about the world so that they can get on with the business of understanding it and interacting with it. As such, there is a demand to be taught simple "truths". Academic inquiry, however, acknowledges that there are no simple "truths", but ways of understanding the world about it and testing our beliefs about it.

The tension between the demand to be taught simple truths and the on-going formulation and evaluation of beliefs by practitioners of the field is particularly apparent in the field of linguistics. Given that linguistics is not (or barely) taught at schools, students entering a unversity have not been taught simplified truths about linguistics as part of their schooling. When confronted with the academic enterprise of evaluating different hypotheses during introductory as well as advanced courses of linguistics, there is often open rebellion as they have no basis yet which they can even begin to question. Students thus first want to know the simple truth about phonological features, morphemes, sentence structure and semantic interpretation and are not interested in on-going (to them often arcane) debates.

This talk takes a look at how to deal with truth vs. beliefs in teaching, drawing mostly on teaching experiences and work within theoretical linguistics and comparing that to teaching and research in computational linguistics, where due to the very practical and applied nature of the work one can very easily be seduced into believing one is learning truths, although the computational programs are just as much of an artefact as concepts coming out of theoretical linguistics.