Instructions for A-level project

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The purpose of this project is for you to do an open-ended and creative work that demonstrates your understanding of some topic from this class and your ability to go beyond just what we learned in class and think about this topic from another perspective or think about more detailed issues related to the topic. There are several things you could do to accomplish this; here is a list of possible projects you could do: (click the links to go to the relevant sections of this page):

Report on a linguistic difference with real-world impact

This project is similar to the real-world examples assignment, but it requires a more in-depth analysis.

You should identify a systematic difference between two languages (real or imaginary), or between two linguistic structures within a language, and discuss how that difference has (or could have) real-world impact on something in life.

Your analysis must use concepts from this subject and it must clearly be about a feature of language (i.e., linguistic grammar, rather than culture, society, etc.). Your project must demonstrate your ability to identify a systematic grammatical difference between languages, describe it from a linguistic perspective using principles of linguistic analysis, and apply that understanding to a real-world problem. Furthermore, it must be accurate—whereas the real-world example project can use a rough example (e.g., something that might have exceptions or contradicting data), for this project I will evaluate your example critically like I would evaluate linguistic arguments from a peer. (So, for example, if you are making a claim about some kind of structure being ungrammatical in a language, but actually it is grammatical and just stylistically less preferred, you would not get credit for this project. For example, in the past students often take an interest in the order of clauses in English "Because" sentences vs. Chinese "因为" sentences, but actually both orders [e.g. "I ate because I'm hungry" vs. "Because I'm hungry, I ate"] are possible; therefore, this is not evidence that the grammars are different.)

There is no strict format the project needs to take, it just needs to address the criteria listed at the end of these instructions. The project does not necessarily need to be an academic presentation or academic paper; something like a creative video, dramatic performance/skit, etc., could be much more interesting.

You may work alone or with one partner. Given the open-ended nature of the task, you must discuss your plan with your instructor before you begin a project. If you are planning to do a project, you (and your partner, if you are working with a partner) should meet with me at least a month before the deadline to discuss your proposal. At this stage you don't need to know yet exactly what linguistic feature you are going to analyze, but you should at least have an idea what kind of material you might want to focus on (e.g., out of the list below, or something else you think of).

Some possible topics that might be appropriate for a project like this include those below, but you may find others as well; the goal of this project is for you to exercise creativity.

Here is the specific list of requirements that your project must meet:

"Four levels" video

Your task in this assignment is to create a video in which you explain a linguistics topic at four different levels of expertise, to four different audiences.

This project is based on the "Five Levels" series of videos created by Wired. To get familiar with the format, first watch at least one episode of Five Levels (at the above link or on YouTube).

You can see that in each of these videos, an expert discusses a topic with five different people: a child, a high school student, an undergraduate student who is majoring in that topic, a doctoral student, and a contemporary (another expert). You can also see that the expert doesn't just lecture, but has a conversation with the audience and gives them a chance to ask questions, explain things in their own words, etc.

For this project I want you to make a video like this, but the levels you use will be a bit different. The four levels will be as follows:

You can work alone or with a partner.

A lot of preparation work goes into making a video like this. For each "level", you will have to think about how to explain the concept in a way the audience will follow, and you have to think about how much detail to include. You will notice from the Wired videos that the earlier levels may leave out some details/complications/contradictions that get discussed at the higher levels. Thus, for the lower-level discussions, you will have to think about how to break down a complicated topic into something a child or secondary student can understand. For the higher levels, especially the discussion with a contemporary, you will have to go beyond the basics and talk about more challenging issues—you can notice from the Wired videos that when the two experts discuss a topic, they don't just discuss the facts that are already known but they also discuss what still needs to be done, what limitations there are in our understanding about the phenomenon, etc. Thus, for the highest-level discussion, you will have to go beyond what was discussed in the modules in this class (i.e., you will have to do some more reading about the topic you choose).

To get credit for completing the "four levels" video, your video must meet the following criteria:

Podcast episode

Your task in this project is to create an episode of a podcast, in which you interview a linguistics researcher about their research.

To get familiar with the podcast format, first listen to at least one episode of The Vocal Fries podcast. At that website you can browse all episodes or you can see a list of episodes organized by topic, so you can find one on a topic you are interested in.

Each of these podcast episodes includes two sections. First, the two hosts chat for about 10 minutes about various topics (they are personal friends in real life, so some of the chat is just catching up about their lives and things happening in the world, but much of the chat is about linguistics-related things they have noticed). Next, for the rest of the hour, they have a discussion with an expert on some topic related to language.

Your task for this project is to create an episode like this. You can work alone or with a friend, but you must identify a linguistics researcher and invite them to do a recorded podcast interview. (Note: when I use this project in my own classes, I contact colleages in my department and make a list of people who are willing to participate in this project, and provide that list to students. I would not recommend people taking this class just cold-call random linguists.) You don't need to include the 10 minutes of free chat at the beginning like The Vocal Fries has, and your episode doesn't need to be as long as theirs, but it should be at least 20 minutes.

A lot of preparation work goes into making an interview like this. Before the interview, you will need to familiarize yourself with the researcher's work that will be discussed—you probably notice in the Vocal Fries that the interviewers often ask specific questions about work the researcher has done, and they would not be able to do that if they weren't already familiar with their work. You do not need to be an expert on the work this researcher has done (indeed, the whole point of a podcast interview is to talk with someone who's more of an expert than you are; if you only discussed topics that you are the world expert on, you would have no need to invite anyone to be interviewed), but you do need to at least browse their work.

You also need to prepare questions and discussion points. The goal of the interview is to have a natural conversation, and having questions ready to spur discussion can facilitate that. When you listen to The Vocal Fries, you will notice that the format is not just question-answer-question-answer-question-answer. It's more like a free-flowing conversation. And the interviewees don't only ask questions; they also sometimes contribute by following up on what the interviewer says, adding extra examples, etc. But the interviewers use the questions to steer the direction of the conversation (even though the discussion often moves off to other topics) and to keep the conversation going. You don't need to follow the questions exactly—you should be prepared to have a natural conversation, and you can notice that The Vocal Fries hosts often deviate from their planned questions (sometimes they even say things like, "Oh, I was planning to ask you about X, but I think you just addressed that already"). But you need questions prepared so that you won't run out of things to talk about during the discussion. Sometimes I think podcast hosts also share the questions with the interviewee before the podcast, so the interviewee has some time to think about what they might want to say.

To get credit for completing the podcast episode, your episode must meet the following criteria:

Here are some software programmes/apps to help with recording podcasts. I have never used any of these, so I can't guarantee how well they work or how easy they are to use.

Propose your own idea

Finally, you can propose your own idea for another kind of project that would accomplish the goals set out at the top of this page. For example, one previous student in this class wrote a mystery short story in which the detective ended up using syntax analysis to solve a crime.

by Stephen Politzer-Ahles. Last modified on 2021-04-15. CC-BY-4.0.