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

final draft.

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]

415 McClung Tower | (423) 974-6965 | FAX (423) 974-6926

Knoxville, TN 37996-0430 | See Webpage at