In a new article, Catherine Rhodes, a linguistic and semiotic anthropologist and assistant professor in the Ethnology program in the Department of Anthropology at The University of New Mexico, discussed how she recently taught linguistic anthropological concepts to her students and how they, in turn, created projects that explain linguistic anthropological concepts to people with no academic background in anthropology or the study of linguistics.

Catherine Rhodes, assistant professor, Ethnology

The article, titled Creative Contributions: Undergraduates Apply Linguistic Anthropological Insights Beyond the Classroom, was featured recently in a Society for Linguistic Anthropology blog. The Society of Linguistic Anthropology “is devoted to exploring and understanding the ways in which language shapes, and is shaped by, social life, from face-to-face interaction to global-level phenomena.”

Rhodes explained that linguistic anthropologists study how living people use language and other things to make meaning in their lives.

While its name is linguistic anthropology, linguistic anthropologists are not solely concerned with language, Rhodes said. Linguistic anthropologists consider “language” to be part of “culture,” and study these concepts by looking at how people who use them make sense of them in practice. Linguistic anthropologists believe that language must be studied in contexts of use.

“Our object of analysis—the ‘thing’ we study—is not ‘language’, but it is how people use language to do stuff in the world,” Rhodes said.

For example, she added, when a person hears someone speak in a certain way, perhaps with an identifiable accent, they may make assumptions about where that person might be from, what experiences that person might have had in their life, or even what that person might be like. When this happens, that accent is called a social index, which means it is functioning as a sign that points to something about a person’s social position.

“Most students in the class were unfamiliar with linguistic anthropology and what linguistic anthropologists do. Therefore, a key task of the semester was to develop a widely shared understanding of what linguistic anthropology is and what it does."

– Catherine Rhodes, assistant professor

In the essay published in Society for Linguistic Anthropology blog, Rhodes related how she tried out a new assignment with students.

“Most students in the class were unfamiliar with linguistic anthropology and what linguistic anthropologists do. Therefore, a key task of the semester was to develop a widely shared understanding of what linguistic anthropology is and what it does,” Rhodes explained.

To demonstrate that they understood the concepts, students were asked to submit a product of their choosing that would allow them to communicate a linguistic anthropological concept to others who had no background in linguistic anthropology. Among their creations were brochures, a song, advertisements, video vignettes, and a radio spot.

Besides Rhodes’ synopsis of her class project, the article highlighted the work of two of her students.

Jacob Sandoval created a radio spot that explains how language ideologies can influence how people think of other people, consciously or not. He quotes linguistic and sociocultural anthropologist Laura Ahearn, who says language ideologies are the attitudes, opinions, beliefs, or theories we all have about language. As an example, he cites Spanish-speaking Hispanics or Black people who speak in an African-American vernacular and may be considered to be not as smart as white English speakers by some people.

Musician Daniel Romero also quotes Ahearn’s idea of the “socially charged life of language.” He notes that “words can mean so much and what is said can depend on multiple things such as context, intonation, delivery… In other words, you can say a lot of words but not say anything; you can say one word and say everything!”

Romero composed a song that he performed for the class, Just Say the Words, in which he “seems to be looking for certain words that are ‘socially charged’ in a very specific way.”

Some of the song’s lyrics are:

“A picture’s worth a thousand words,
But what are words really worth?...
What do our words really say?
So much more than you think
So much more than sounds
I believe that we can state
So much more than we really say
I know we can we work this out…
Just say the words

Rhodes noted, “In our course, we focused on developing an understanding of ‘language’ as a socially enacted, communicative system that people situationally mobilize in daily life to accomplish social work. We questioned what we thought we knew and stretched the bounds of our understanding of ‘language.’ Students worked to come to understand ‘language’ and other communicative phenomena as key means through which social work is done, such as how sociological differentiators like ‘gender’ and ‘race’ become socially salient.”

The project allowed the students to successfully demonstrate understanding of course material through creative alternate assignment formats, especially during a time of so many online classes, Rhodes added, and provided them with a “productive and accessible means through which students can share course content with friends and family members who are unfamiliar with linguistic anthropological tools and insights.”

Related story: Sardinian experience reflected in new CD released by UNM professor