Graduating in a Subject vs Teaching a Subject

From being a theoretical linguist to an applied educational linguist, Agniva Pal shares his story.

Think

From sitting in a class trying to understand Shakespeare to understanding the meaning of Saussurian signs and symbols to eventually standing in a class teaching how a student may capitalise on the knowledge offered by linguistics, I think I have come a long way.

As I crossed the billionth second in my life (Wade, 2018) and as the freckles on my forehead increased, I realised that I have started to treat my life experiences from a certain educational viewpoint. My life experiences were suddenly stories that could be narrated to groups of students while discussing something from the course document. There is a certain, subtle pedagogical advantage that I started getting when I started looking at things, especially experiences of life, facts and wisdom, conversations, stories and random WhatsApp messages claiming research claims’, through the eyes of a researcher. It adds to my role as a teacher.

I had previously taught design features by Charles F Hockett, which talks about universal features of language on planet Earth (Hockett’s Design Features, 2023). A few features are shared by all living organisms which can communicate and a chosen few belong to human beings, the evolved primate beings. I was not sure why these were being taught to students previously.

My parents were unpleasantly surprised when I chose to pursue humanities in my 10+2 and then went ahead and pursued a Bachelor’s degree in English Honours. The word which best describes the way I was educated in the literary arts is sheepish’. Little did I know that after 15 years, I would be teaching students how to capitalise on literature while teaching young kids and thereafter the role of literature in the lives of children (Eagleton, 1985). 

Back when I was a student, we were mostly handed out notes and the only correct’ interpretation of a prose or poem would be the one which teachers would hand out to us, through their notes! 

Only a few teachers inspired us to read literature the way it is supposed to be read and yet their roles were dissolved in the aquaregia’ (Aqua Regia, 2024) of acidic note-makers quickly. I suppose this aversed me and many others.

Luckily, when we were introduced to an extremely rudimentary and old form of linguistics in our third and final year, it caught my attention. I realised the beauty of being able to interpret on my own, understanding the phonetic symbols and the way words form. In the end, my observable universe was affected by the principles of universal grammar (Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, 2024) and I decided to pursue linguistics in my Master’s. 

Fast forward ten years and I had completed master’s, MPhil and PhD in Linguistics. I worked with right-hemisphere brain-damaged (RHD) individuals. A person with RHD might manifest changes like problems of adherence to theme conversations, lack of facial expressions, either very quick or very slow speech, changes in the pitch of their voice or absence of pitch variations, frequent digressions and so on. They are also characterised by neglect of the left side of the body, hemiplegia or hemiparesis (Pal, 2018, Pal, 2019). 

This was my first exposure to how linguistics can be used beyond just theory. This was where I learnt that phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and every other field of linguistics may be used to understand the human brain. The language of an individual studied through phonetics also reveals their pitch variations and therefore messages encoded beyond just words in conversations. 

For example, one may say, Please come in”, to a student in a welcoming way and someone else may say the same with a disgusted face. In spite of the words being the same, the message can be drastically different. 

After the PhD, I needed a job, and I realised that I would either need to be associated with English departments where I could teach a bit of linguistics or be associated with research concerns but not get to teach at all. Unfortunately, there was very little scope for continuing my research and hence, I gravitated towards teaching at some places in English departments.

Since my first job in teaching, I have given it my all and students loved the fact that the International Phonetic Alphabet could be understood and not memorised; that morphemes or the smallest units of grammar (for example, sing+ing makes singing. Sing’ is the free morpheme and ing’ is a bound morpheme since it cannot be used freely in a sentence) in a word may be broken down into free and bound versions and none of them needed to memorise examples for it. They would even be able to guess the etymology (Etymology, 2024) of a word to some extent. But somehow, I knew all of this was to pass an exam! I had the urge to use linguistics to make a difference.

Skip to February of 2023, and I had just joined the School of Education at Azim Premji University. There was so much to learn, and the excitement was real. Yet, I knew there was a lot to catch up. It was not before I sat in the classes that I realised how, the subject that I loved so much, linguistics, was playing a pivotal role.

From mindlessly teaching Chomsky (Noam Chomsky, 2024) to teaching Chomsky along with Krashen (Stephen Krashen, 2024), Piaget (Kendra Cherry, 2023) and Vygotsky (Kendra Cherry, 2023), to teach language acquisition and henceforth variations of language in a classroom, I have come a long way. I have come from being a theoretical linguist limited to teaching concepts of linguistics for simply answering an exam to being an educator who’s able to blend linguistics into the domain of education.

I didn’t realise that language plays a pivotal role in education. I have been teaching language planning and harping on the importance of planning and implementation and yet I did not realise tangible changes can be attained if language planning may be done properly, through proper discussions with experts who understand a target language and with policy experts. I did not realise policy plays a huge role in the way languages are looked at in a country or that in the absence of proper policy that supports a particular language, it might eventually fade into oblivion (Dewey, 1974).

It took me time to understand that the scheduled languages in the VIII schedule of the Indian constitution were the languages that gained political momentum. These were the languages with either rich people’s support or people strong enough to fend for themselves. At the end of the day, indigenous Adivasi minority languages aren’t there on the list because they don’t have enough social power and capital like Kannada or Tamil speakers do. 

And hence I also realise that some languages will never gain a spot on the schedule. They will use their languages under the pressure and power of another language that has gained a spot on the schedule and die eventually never gaining a spot on the schedule. Their children will never be educated in their mother tongues. Their stories will not be told by their future generations and their languages will always be called a boli’, not a bhasha’ (Mesthrie, 2009). Recently, I also completed writing a paper narrating the same. I would never have looked at language and linguistic politics from this point of view, had it not been for the educators at the university or the kind of questions we want the students to ask and answer through the course of the 2‑year MA in Education

I had previously taught design features by Charles F Hockett, which talks about universal features of language on planet Earth (Hockett’s Design Features, 2023). A few features are shared by all living organisms which can communicate and a chosen few belong to human beings, the evolved primate beings. I was not sure why these were being taught to students previously. 

Here, I connected the design features with the way languages have evolved throughout time and how acquisition of languages may take place in various humanoid groups, based on geographical location, association of sounds with symbols through mass recognition and the evolution of modern languages. A certain degree of scientific temper is slowly being ingrained into me, a type which urges me to question what a certain topic might add to the life of a student to make their life easier and where they may be able to use that sort of knowledge. 

I realise now that it is also important for future teachers to be able to have a lot of capacity to deal with deviations from what they think is their linguistic normalcy. One might be speaking a phonologically different variety of the language that a teacher speaks and that does not mean it has lesser amounts of prestige (Agnihotri, 2009). 

A student might also use words that might be loan words from their home language because they are desperately trying to grasp the new language through which they are being educated and as a teacher, one should be able to sustain all kinds of students in a classroom. A classroom needs to be an inclusive space where every student should feel equal. In the long run, this is what will bring sustenance to the education system. I practice it and want my students to as well. 

Teaching research has also been a part of my teaching regimen throughout my stay at various organisations, but it was only when I started to teach field research that I understood what students might gain out of an engagement at the grassroots levels in the field. 

It has been a rewarding process teaching them to understand the connection from ontology to epistemology, in turn guiding them to understand how to choose ideal methods to elicit empirical data. It was equally rewarding to see them elicit good data, work on it and then come up with full-fledged master’s research dissertations of their own. The fact that I was a researcher, researching not a long time back in the field, working with right hemisphere-damaged participants at a hospital for my PhD only helped me train these students better. 

In short, my experience only helped me teach better. These were students who once questioned the importance of literature review. By the time the Field Research I and II course ended, these students knew the value of citation, the cons associated with plagiarising and the importance of questioning things, even commonplace in everyday life. They are the graduating batch and it was satisfying to see them develop an outlook of life that was quite different than what most of them had before the courses. 

When I received a call from the People Function informing me that they thought my candidature would fit a role in the school of education, I was puzzled. At that time, I thought it would be another interview where I would not be able to understand the questions asked to me. I was taken aback when questions regarding linguistics were asked to me, well within my subject area and grasp. From a phase where I was questioning my possible worth in a school teaching education to teaching at the School of Education, Azim Premji University, where I have successfully inflicted students with perilous knowledge that I know will someday, be used by them on the field, I have come a long way.

From mindlessly teaching Chomsky (Noam Chomsky, 2024) to teaching Chomsky along with Krashen (Stephen Krashen, 2024), Piaget (Kendra Cherry, 2023) and Vygotsky (Kendra Cherry, 2023), to teach language acquisition and henceforth variations of language in a classroom, I have come a long way. I have come from being a theoretical linguist limited to teaching concepts of linguistics for simply answering an exam to being an educator who’s able to blend linguistics into the domain of education.

I have been able to use linguistics to support pedagogical practices in class and student betterment. A long-term goal would be to find discernable societal viewpoints and general traditions and practices but that will take time. I’ve also become a more tolerant version of myself! Frankly, I am glad that I came across this new linguistic perspective, in the first place.

I am glad that I get to have a hand in creating future educators, mentors, philosophers, social workers and thinkers who would value linguistic diversity, and cultural and traditional diversity, who can freely question practices that are commonly accepted in society, who can pinpoint problems through their research-oriented thinking and who will bring change to the society.

A classroom needs to be an inclusive space where every student should feel equal. In the long run, this is what will bring sustenance to the education system. I practice it and want my students to as well. 

I am also happy that this allows me to bring changes to my life directly. They say that if you have an infinite number of monkeys (Infinite Monkey Theorem, 2024) typing random keys on an infinite number of typewriters, they will end up typing out all the works of Shakespeare, Tagore and every other great because one day they will randomly type out every right combination of keys exactly in the right order. I hope I am one of those monkeys, who ends up contributing to society!

Image credit: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay

References

About the Author

Agniva Pal is a faculty member at Azim Premji University. He has an ardent love for his subject, linguistics, and he has been teaching linguistics ever since he completed his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2018. 

Attribution