Teaching Linguistics to Students Thinking of Something Else

L.H. Wee (Hong Kong Baptist University)

This presentation is a pilot study of the challenges facing the professor in the linguistics classroom of universities in Hong Kong. The study draws its data from the English Language and Literature undergraduate and master students at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Data considered included interviews conducted to students prior to their entry into the university programs, personal statements, classroom observations and qualitative feedback given in official/unofficial teaching evaluations and department surveys. Some solutions would be proposed on the bases of the data.

It is demonstrable that Hong Kong language major students understand of the notions "linguistics" and "practicality", to mean mastering the English grammar and money-making possibilities respectively. This makes them particularly susceptible to indoctrinating classes parading under the banner of "linguistics", effectively making many devout followers of unsubstantiated prescriptions and intuitions.

If education is about creating intellectual independence through developing necessary thinking skills, then overcoming the problem is necessary. This presentation explains that part of the problem may have come from the inappropriate naming of language classes at preuniversity levels. These classes do not really aim at teaching language, they aim at teaching expression through the use of language. To nip misconceptions in the bud, one can appeal to the fact that many language major students have teaching as their career goals (34% of English major graduates 2007). Thus by effectively teaching current students, positive effects would presumably feed into further positive effects.

To get current students to recognize their misconceptions, a battery of measures is needed, beginning with perhaps a demonstration of the difference between practicality and trickery through illustrations with linguistics-based technology and applications beyond prescriptivist and intuitive language teaching. In actual teaching, it is also important to recognize that it is inadequate to teach a course that merely has the linguistic theories, the facts that motivate them and the range of data to which the theories are applicable. Students must be led to construct theories, not just learn them. Any relevant established theory can only be presented to the students after they have been given a chance to construct their own. This mode of teaching is tedious for the teacher, and could lead to insecurity amongst students, but it would put the spirit of inquiry into practice.

The mode of teaching outlined above can only succeed if its effectiveness is not distorted by teaching evaluations that are de facto popularity thermometers. Teaching evaluations have to be targeted at establishing if the classroom learning profile (PETE, Wee 2006) matches that typified by inquiry-motivated activities, not at establishing effective delivery. What is outlined above suggests that a full solution can only be found with large scale revamping. This is not necessarily the case, and can be in fact practiced by an individual linguistics teacher who takes the trouble to construct a profile-establishing teaching evaluation to supplement any misaligned university's version.


Wee, Lian-Hee. 2006. Profile Establishing Teaching Evaluations. In TLHE 2006: International Conference on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Centre for the Development of Teaching and Learning, National University of Singapore, pp.286-289.