Sunday, March 24, 2013

More complaining about students

OK, so the linguistics students had an assignment to write an ecology of a specific dialect of a language.  They were to avoid broad generalized "languages," like "Spanish" or "Japanese," and focus on more localized varieties such as "Panamanian Spanish" or "Tokyo Japanese."

The ecology is developed by answering questions based on my reinterpretation of an article by Einar Haugen in The Linguistic Reporter, Winter 1971, page 25.  My questions:
  • What is the name of the language variety (what do its speakers call it; what do nonspeakers call it; what do linguists call it)?
  • Who are its users, and how are they grouped by nation, geographical location, class, religion, or any other relevant grouping?
  • What larger “language” does it belong to? What are the main closely related dialects?
  • What other dialects are employed by its users?
  • Is this dialect written? If so, how and in what contexts?
  • Is its use restricted or limited in certain ways, for example religion or ritual, written literature, legal proceedings, folk tales, and so on?
  • What issues of power and authority are relevant to this dialect?
  • Is the dialect endangered? If so, what factors might be involved? If not, what might be contributing to its vitality?
Most of the students turned in papers that correctly identified a dialect to write about, but then proceeded to ignore the questions.  Some wrote about their personal reasons for being interested in this dialect; others focused on issues of grammar; others focused on other issues not really relevant to the questions at hand.

And, far too many offered a list of references but did not bother to cite those references in the text of their papers.

What do we do, when our university students can't do what they should have learned to do in high school?


  1. I wonder how so many students could have ignored the questions. Really, I'm truly confused. I've heard of conflicts between a professor's instructions and student comprehension, but completely ignoring a list of simple questions is something new. Perhaps they were all stricken with a case of temporary and specific blindness?

  2. Let's see... You haven't addressed the diverse learning styles of your didn't communicate it to them in a clear haven't addressed what the students' own learning goals are..... Your students haven't learned to read and follow instructions.... I know which option I'm leaning toward....

  3. Sadly, it's not new, and Brian hit the nail on the head: they aren't reading and following directions. Scores of students are leaving high school without basic reading skills. They understand individual words and sentences most of the time, but they often have difficulty understanding context or connections between what they read and what they think. Teaching at a c.c. in California, my colleagues and I run into this problem time and time again. It doesn't matter how clear the directions are if our students aren't reading them.

    All I can say is that there are a lot of us out there who are trying to help students develop their level of literacy. We're directing them back to the words on the page. We're trying to show them that literacy is empowerment.

  4. Every paper I assign has a detailed outline on the assignment sheet. MOST of my students don't read it. They read the title of the assignment and *guess* from there. It is very discouraging.

  5. Ron, I am finding that my students have such a hard time following my printed, step-by-step directions (sometimes seeing them as incidental, even accidental, rather than required) that I am ready to declare a pandemic of Cantfollowdirectionsitis. I address learning styles by printing out directions and reading tyhem aloud, and taking questions. Sometimes this explain-the-assignment session burns up 10 minutes. -- coming down with Idontknowwhattodoitis -- Wade

  6. What! This happens to other people too? I thought I was a loner. I get the feeling that many of them leave it until the last minute and then do not have enough time to be bothered by the instructions, if they remember they are there. From time to time I also send pointers to the whole class. These go directly to their institutional email accounts. From time to time students will come to my office or stop me on the corridor and tell me that they HEARD that I said I wanted X.

    A couple weeks ago I stood up before the class and demonstrated how they must label the sections in their thesis and the principle behind numbering tables and figures. I felt like such a fool for telling them those little things. Now I am marking and I feel like a many people were obviously not in class.

    1. Joseph, you are very very far from alone!

  7. Perhaps your students don't know or they have faced a lifetime of condemnation or persecution for speaking their home dialect? Happens in a lot of places around the world where there are stand language policies, you know. I had to teach myself my own language by eavesdropping and transcribing spoken conversations because my own family members refused to teach it to me and I'm the only person crazy enough to do that. If you believe ethnologue, the language is 'well and alive' but sometimes there are things can not be said due to political reasons. As a student of linguistics previously I had problems making some of the foreign professors understand exactly what the situation was, and even though the language was widely acknowledged as a home language, hardly any students spoke it any more and there is a strong taboo against inter-generational transmission. Looking at the statistics, nobody would believe the language was endangered in any way but it only takes two generations for a language to die out.

    In order to answer all those questions, your students would need to know about the history and politics of the nation-state, the rise of global languages, sociolinguistic concepts like register and diglossia, historical or contact linguistics, etc. I don't know how they can manage all that if some of them can't even tell the difference between the spoken and written word or have no realization that spoken dialects ARE languages too.


Comments and feedback are welcome, as long as they conform to normal standards of civility and decency. I will delete comments that do not meet these standards.