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Monday, December 10, 2007

Labyrinth of Languages

On May 5, as you will recall, I posted an article about a proposed new class for the Saturday Course, temporarily code-named Geolinguistics. Well, that course has indeed come into existence, and I am just finishing teaching it for the second time. Now called Labyrinth of Languages, it has a new course description:
Have you ever wondered about exploring other languages — what they’re like, how they’re related, and who speaks them where? If so, this is the course for you. Each week we’ll focus on an important language or region of the world. We’ll try to answer a lot of fascinating questions along the way. For instance, is Chinese really a single language with many dialects? Why is English so widespread around the world? And why did Spanish and Portuguese spread around so much of the world as well? Speaking of Spanish, what else do they speak in Spain? Does everyone there speak Spanish? Have you heard of Catalan? What about Basque? Lots of Spaniards speak those two languages. Do you know whether there are more English speakers or
Hindi speakers in the world? Did you know that Turkish is related to Mongolian? How could that be? And why is Irish related to Urdu, a language spoken in Pakistan? Take a lot of languages and a pinch of geography, toss them into your cauldron, stir twice counterclockwise, and you’ve got this course!
I taught this to a group of sixth-graders for six weeks in September and October, and then to a group of fifth-graders for another six weeks in October–December, with (IMHO) considerable success. As always, the reality didn’t quite match the description, but it came remarkably close. The kids were great, ranging from enthusiastic to knowledgeable, with a great many being both. By a strange coincidence, my class was 50% Chinese in the first go-round (five of the ten kids), so I did a bit more Chinese than anticipated, especially since one student was extraordinarily opinionated — and with the knowledge to back up her strong opinions. For instance, she was unhappy when I said that Japanese originally didn’t have any writing system so they borrowed kanji characters from Chinese: “They didn’t borrow our characters — they stole them! And they never returned them.”

After some tweaking, I settled on a six-week plan (one 75-minute class per week) that looks like this:
  1. The languages of Spain

  2. The countries and languages of the former Soviet Union (mostly Russian)

  3. Chinese

  4. Japanese

  5. Turkish and other Turkic languages

  6. How languages change over time and space (mostly English)
Of course there isn’t enough time to explore more than a smattering of each topic, but this whirlwind tour still gives kids a lot of meat to chew on. They learn about similarities of three of the languages in Spain (but not Basque!), the Cyrillic alphabet, the use of a few verb and noun endings in Russian, Chinese characters and compound nouns, the four Japanese writing systems, vowel harmony and the astounding lack of irregularities in Turkish, and how English has changed over the past 1100 years. They get a few tidbits of each language and learn something about the similarities and differences, the relationships and mysteries. And they learn that language is really speech, and writing is only a representation.

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