Intra-disciplinary and Trans-disciplinary Inquiry in Linguistics Education

K.P. Mohanan (National University of Singapore)

In the Spring of 1979, Ken Hale and Wayne O?Neil taught a course on undergraduate linguistics education at MIT. Tara Mohanan and I were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to sit in on that course. And it changed our lives.

Central to the course was the idea that rather than transmitting to students a body of textbook knowledge (theory or grammar) and providing training in the application of that knowledge to bodies of data, it is pedagogically and educationally more meaningful to help them construct a variant of that knowledge.

Even before the semester was over, we had a chance to use this approach to teaching and to try out the ideas in a one-week course that the two of us taught on phonetics and the teaching of it, for language teachers in Boston. The experiment was a tremendous success. From that point on, our practice of and thinking about linguistics teaching, and education in general, has been an exciting and enlightening journey along a path that Ken pointed us towards. This talk is an attempt to look back and share with colleagues what we have learnt through that thirty-year journey.

There are at least three important educational values that emerge from this retrospect, and would like to share in my talk:

  1. Inquiry-Based Learning: developing the students? capacity for critical thinking and inquiry through an apprentice course in theory construction and theory evaluation (prior to exposing them to the theories we subscribe to, or other available theories);
  2. Critical understanding: helping students understand the evidence for (and against) every theoretical construct and principle they are exposed to; and
  3. Trans-disciplinary understanding: helping students develop an integrated understanding of the knowledge and inquiry across sub-fields and sub-theories of linguistics, as well as of linguistics within academia in general.