Encouraging Large Intro-level Linguistic Lectures to Build Their Own Languages

Faculty Name Andries Coetzee
Course Linguistics 210
  • Group Assignments
  • Peer Evaluation
  • Tutorial Videos


Andries Coetzee was tasked with teaching the large introductory Linguistics course often taken as a compulsory distribution requirement, divided between early-career (freshman) students who may want to major in Linguistics and students in their final year who need the credits to graduate. With the help of CRLT’s Large Course Initiative, he has implemented a “Build Your Own Language” group assignment to build on the excitement around so-called “constructed”  languages in popular culture and engage the diverse learners of the course.

Active Learning in the Course

Rather than having students engage in the theories of linguistics through extensive data sets and previous research, students in this introductory course are taking the theoretical tools presented in class to create their own language in groups of three or more. By making explicit connections between this assignment and the type of work linguistics scholars contribute to media texts (the language of Pandora in Avatar, for example), the students can directly connect the work of the class, and thus the work of the major should they wish to continue, to the cultural products around them.

Challenges and Solutions

The work of creating a language is massive, and so Coetzee made this a group assignment that students work on over the course of the semester. By intentionally creating the groups (rather than letting students self-select), the teaching team can balance the range of abilities and previous knowledge across the groups. Students also periodically assess their participation, and that of their group members, on the project, ensuring that work is being contributed across all members, or that lack of contribution can be addressed in the final grade.

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Changes in Instruction

Initial preparation for this assignment was challenging for the teaching team. Creating detailed assignment prompts and rubrics ensured that all students could understand the high-level demands of the project, while creating video resources for the course website allowed the team to demonstrate how to incorporate complex linguistic diagrams without dominating lectures with technical instruction. Canvas’ group feature, along with Google Docs, allows instructors to see the projects as the students constructed them, rather than just the final product, which provided further insight into how the assignment was working. But all that prior planning has paid off, and the class runs more and more smoothly each time it is taught with only minor changes to the structure of the course or assignment.

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Benefits for Students

Because students evaluate each other as part of each scaffolded assignment of the final project, Coetzee has seen increased student engagement in the project, and in the course as a whole. Groups even have rudimentary conversations with  each other in their constructed language, which is especially exciting in a course that serves such a diverse set of populations in the department.