Date: Mon, 6 May 1996 12:34:27 -0400
From: "Bethany K. Dumas, U of Tennessee" dumasb[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]UTKVX.UTK.EDU
Subject: Th Linguistic Autobiography
One of the joys of teaching is having an assignment succeed, especially
in a large class. I love to teach Ling 200, our intro course. This year,
we offered only one section, so I allowed students to add past the usual
enrollment max of 32. Thirty-seven students finished the course.
One assignment I periodically use is the linguistic autobiography. I got
the idea from Raven McDavid many years ago, when I was visiting him in
Chicago. I overheard a conference with a student and asked about the
assignment. What I do is, towards the end of the course, ask students to
write an essay accounting for how they use language and how they came to
have the attitudes they have about the way other people use language. I
read a first draft, which is usually heavy on family history, short on
linguistic detail. I then make suggestions re the latter and ask for a
Along the way, I share details from my own linguistic autobiography,
beginning with my "Shirley stories." When I was 9/10, we moved to a
"city" (Beaumont, TX), the first non-rural environment I lived in
for any significant period of time. There for the first time I had a
best friend, a girl named Shirley, who gave me some important
training in rural/urban distinctions. Our first lesson. for instance, was
triggered by my use of the term "washrag." "You shouldn't say 'washrag,'"
Shirley responded. "Why not?" I asked, puzzled. "It doesn't sound nice," said
Shirley. "Oh," I said, faced with a predicament. "Then what should I say?"
"Wash cloth," said Shirley. "Why?" I asked. "It sounds better," said
Shirley. Sociolinguistics 101! Shirley was little and cute and was
determined to move up and out of the working-class neighborhood we lived
in, and her linguistic instincts were quite sound, I think.
This year, I required each student to give a 5-minute oral report to the
class on the assn. The reports were funny, the papers are excellent,
and I have now decided to modify the assignment by requiring students
to audio or video-tape (themselves or family members) in connection
with it in the future The idea came from a student who had a
small part in the film, "Coal Miner's Daughter," when she was 6 years
old as one of Loretta Lynn's twin daughters. Her one line included the word
"probably." The scene had to be reshot several times, because her mother
taught her to say /prab[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]bli/ instead of the expected /prabli/. The student
showed the scene from the film in class.
I have many wonderful examples of student analysis of family language.
Perhaps I can find a suitable audience for a brief presentation. Anyone
know of a conference with an appropriate theme?
Bethany K. Dumas, J.D., Ph.D. | Applied Linguistics, Language & Law
Dep't of English, UT, Knoxville | EMAIL: dumasb[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]utk.edu
415 McClung Tower | (423) 974-6965 | FAX (423) 974-6926
Knoxville, TN 37996-0430 | See Webpage at http://ljp.la.utk.edu