Language Myths and Realities

Course description

This course explores a number of widespread myths and misconceptions about language, and aims to shed light on questions of broad, general interest. Topics include how children and adults learn languages, whether language equals thought, whether some languages are harder than others, whether English is getting worse (or better), whether some languages are more primitive than others, the differences between men's and women's speech, sign languages, animal communication systems, feral children's language, language disorders, language savants, and language and politics.


The class will meet on Mondays and Wednesdays except for July 4; this class will be made up on Friday, July 6. The first part of the class will be primarily devoted to lecture (though discussion is encouraged!); we will then take a break and the second part will be devoted to discussion of the issues brought up in the first part.

Course requirements

  1. Reaction papers: Seven 1-page (maximum) reaction papers, which should pick out a single issue or question from one of the readings, explain why it is interesting and important, and provided an informed assessment of it based on what you have learned from the readings or in class. Reaction papers are due at the beginning of class on June 27, July 2, 6, 9, 11, 16 and 18. (50%)

  2. Participation: Students are expected to participate in the discussion, and each student will also take partial responsibility for leading one discussion session. (25%)

  3. Final paper: For the final paper, students will choose one of their earlier reaction papers and revise and expand it, turning it into a three-page essay that addreses the topic in more detail. The final paper is due on Monday, July 30, and should be sent as email attachments (in pdf format) to Chris Kennedy and Jackie Bunting. (25%)

Readings and syllabus

The text for the course is Bauer, Laurie and Peter Trudgill (eds.), 1998, Language Myths, Penguin, New York. In addition, there will be a number of auxiliary readings, all of which can be downloaded from this website via the links posted below.