A little bit of linguistics can be a lot of fun

Ever thought of introducing linguistics to your students? I used to be extremely bored with it when I was doing my BA, but because of reasons linguistics turned out to be my major during MA studies. I’m really glad I took up this option, because I’ve learnt linguistics is only boring when you are studying the basics, but later on it magically transforms into a beautiful butterfly of logic, pragmatism and, generally, turns out to be the only aspect of studying a language that makes some sense.

Take this, literature majors, mwahaha!

Anyway, there’s this concept I find really useful especially when teaching teenagers – Ogden-Richards’ semiotic triangle. I’m sure those whose uni programme covered at least an introduction to linguistics know this structure by heart as it’s one of the basic ideas covered. Those, who haven’t had the pleasure yet, well, you may just as well read on to see how I explain it to my students.

First of all: I introduce it when we encounter a problem with direct translation, classic home and house are the best examples. I start with a simple “experiment” – I ask my students to draw a house. And yes, they always go with this immortal shape:

So did I, when our professor made us do the same task. “Now, how come,” I ask my students, “you’ve all drawn the same house? Do you live in a house like this? Have you ever seen a house like this at all?”

It’s a good way of explaining the idea of the concept. But then, I tell my students, things get complicated – and I ask them to draw a home. Now, these drawings are significantly different – family members, their position, pets, etc. “So, why do you think these pictures vary,” I ask, and sooner or later they realise it’s because of personal experiences.

And this is the point where the triangle naturally comes up – you present a symbol/word we picture when we think about “home”, a reference (mum, dad and my cat) and straight lines that connect these two ideas –  now, the line between a referent and a symbol is dashed as various people have various ideas, pictures and meanings connected to the same symbol. What I mean by “home” is completely different to what my interlocutor has in mind (e.g. I think about my tiny flat where I live with my husband and two cats having tons of fun, and my colleague thinks about his childhood memories of living in a huge country house with a huge family but also lots of tedious duties).

So, it’s easy to share the same “picture in mind” for “house”, but with “home” it’s almost impossible to guess, without any context, what somebody has in mind. And this is basically what hampers our communication.

This is also the reason why I like to explain this concept to the teenagers – this is when they start having a lot of problems with communication with people, especially their parents and teachers. It’s a way of indicating the problem and showing one of the issues, that sometimes people around you aren’t simply mean, they don’t always understand you.

After all, haven’t we all been misunderstood teenagers?