Feedback from an English Language teacher

Here is a message sent to the English Language mailing list by Louis Blois (John Leggott College, Scunthorpe) on 24 June 2011, in reply to the following query:

“Hi Listers, Has anyone entered their students for [the Linguistics Olympiad] before? I’m looking at it as a possible g/t enrichment project, but would appreciate any comments from people with experience of it. Thanks Lyn”

Let me heartily recommend the LO! To declare my interest, I am involved with the UK committee, but only as a result of the terrifically enjoyable experience I’ve had trialling the LO with my folks – I’ve run it as an ‘enrichment’ for a couple of years now, and students have thrived on it, sharpening their language skills, finding and bringing along like-minded friends, having a great time and even entering the national contest, so it is everso worth it, and not just for the buzz of entering a national contest; students have found it works wonders on personal statements, etc. In fact, at a recent Open Day/taster visit to York Uni, our current AS EngLang students were given an LO puzzle as a foretaste of Linguistics at degree level, so it clearly points them in the right direction; it was a ‘Foundation’ level puzzle, the level that you might try on younger students, but it’s a good example, from last year’s contest, of what seems at first the oddest thing about LO problems, namely that they tend to use unknown or imaginary languages, to get folks thinking about ‘linguistic’ issues and ideas per se, and how to transfer what they know – say from EngLang – to other languages [and, hopefully, vice versa!]. I’m attaching … a puzzle from an American paper that I use with my groups in our first ‘taster’ session [at the rate of one or two problems a week, it’s an easy-plan, low-resource course that doesn’t require any expert knowledge from us, just a willingness to think along with the folks!]

I’d agree with other Listers that by no means all of the ‘problems’ are suitable for all Lang students, tho’ a goodly number are; I ran the enrichment for allcomers [we’re an open access 6th form college, FWIW] after trailing it in my own classes, as well as in MFL classes and – yes – Maths classes. Although a few dropped out as soon as they realised what was involved, a small group grew by word of mouth, and, in the end, met in their own time as well as in our weekly sessions to chew over the LO problems; they were not exclusively ‘higher achieving’ students, though many were those who were looking for something ‘stretchy’ – one thing that has surprised me is the way some of the problems have brought out skills from students who’ve struggled with issues in our EngLang classes, given that they are thinking in LO in ways we don’t otherwise ask them to think; morphological analysis particularly suddenly ‘clicks’ when the folks are looking at languages they’ve never encountered before… One of the best things has been simply that genuinely like-minded students have found each other – folks who enjoy grappling with ‘thought’ problems, be they scientists, linguists [in all senses], Mathematicians, have repeatedly said that they never knew there were others out there… Oh, and an unexpected bonus has been recruitment – some really good students have chosen to take AS EngLang in their second year after coming to LO as AS MFL or ‘Science’ students, suddenly realising that EngLang isn’t actually about writing stories. Having said all of which, those who have got the most out of LO have been A2 students – it relies upon, and seems to help develop, the kind of ‘lateral’ thinking that hasn’t always developed at 16 – the so-called ‘higher order’ or ‘synthesis’ stuff of which A grade papers are made; after a fair struggle with The Powers in college to establish the enrichment, I find myself commended for the only such course that attracts more Y2 than Y1 students. Go figure. There are many examples of the problems available on various sites, mostly linked from the UKLO site itself – and, after brief discussions of the linguistic issues involved, sessions mainly involved the students getting their heads down, sometimes singly, sometimes collaboratively, and doing some serious thinking. I have to say, it was this that most impressed me – even the chattiest, most easily distracted students suddenly focussed and scribbled silently in ways I’d never seen them do in EngLang classes! If anyone would like more info, feel free to mail me offlist – I first caught the bug here when Dick posted something a few years ago, and can say that he, and the rest of the UKLO organisers, couldn’t be more approachable, helpful or supportive toward people who are interested in trying it out. Louis

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