On Teaching Canadian English at McGill

Date: February 15, 2012 | Category: Guest Column
Author: Charles Boberg

The fall semester of 2011 provided an exciting opportunity for me.  I taught, for the first time, McGill’s new course in Canadian English (LING 325).  I designed this course around my book on Canadian English, which appeared recently: The English Language in Canada: Status, History and Comparative Analysis (Cambridge University Press, 2010).  Here's a link to a description of the book on the CUP website: http://www.cambridge.org/ca/knowledge/isbn/item2711984/?site_locale=en_CA.

Since several other universities have such courses, and since others may be considering designing such a course in the future, I thought it might be helpful and interesting to use this forum as a space in which to share my experiences with this new venture.

In designing the course, I was hoping to do two things.  First, my strong interest in teaching Canadian English to undergraduates had previously been constrained by the lack of a dedicated course on that subject.  I had been treating Canadian English as a unit or module in a broader course on Dialectology, along with modules on American and British dialects.  This was the best place for it at the time, but clearly did not permit the sort of depth or breadth I wanted my students to be exposed to.  Moreover, a Dialectology course should really focus primarily on matters of dialectological history and theory, and not on the particulars of individual dialects.  A separate course on Canadian English seemed the best solution to this problem.

A second motivation was my interest in developing cross-disciplinary links in my teaching by engaging students beyond the field of Linguistics, using Canadian English as the subject material.  As all linguists are aware, Linguistics has connections to many “allied” disciplines in the arts and sciences.  While links to subjects like Cognitive Science, Philosophy and Psychology had been well established in McGill’s Linguistics program for some time (and with good reason), links to fields in the humanities and social sciences were, I felt, somewhat weaker.  This represented a fresh opportunity for introducing new groups of students to the sorts of things we do in Linguistics.  I find these links very interesting myself.  In fact, while the core of my book is concerned with linguistic analysis, the first two chapters are primarily devoted to looking at Canadian English from a wide range of non-linguistic perspectives: from Demography, Geography, History, Law and Political Science to Cultural Studies, Film, Literature and even Popular Music.  A new course dedicated to Canadian English would allow these points of view to be addressed, in such a way as to attract a non-traditional population of students who might be encountering Linguistics for the first time.  While these students would learn a lot about linguistic analysis in the course, their unifying characteristic would be, not an interest in Linguistics per se, but an interest in Canada and things Canadian.

Administrative delays in getting the course approved meant that the first class would be small, since most students had already chosen their courses by the time LING 325 became available for registration.  Despite this setback, the strategy of reaching out to other departments proved effective: of the 14 students who did register, only 4 (29%) were from Linguistics.  The majority came from programs as diverse as Biology, Education, English, Environment, Geography, Political Science and Psychology, a stimulating mix that supported a perspective-widening exchange of views in class discussions.  Even more surprising was that not all of them were Canadian: several students were American and one was an exchange student from overseas.  That Canadian English should attract the interest of such a widely varied group of students is a very encouraging result, I trust, for most readers of this website.

While the course was based around the progression of topics treated in my book, which served as the required textbook, it was crucially supplemented by a selection of readings from the ever-growing body of research on Canadian English by other scholars, from its origins in the 1950s up to the present.  Here is my selection, which seemed to work well:

     Allen, Harold B.  1959.  Canadian-American speech differences along the middle border.  Journal of the Canadian Linguistic Association 5/1: 17-24.   
     Avis, Walter S.  1954.  Speech differences along the Ontario-United States border.  I.  Vocabulary.  Journal of the Canadian Linguistic Association 1/1: 13-18.
     Avis, Walter S.  1955.  Speech differences along the Ontario-United States border.  II.  Grammar and syntax.  Journal of the Canadian Linguistic Association 1/1 (Regular Series): 14-19.
     Avis, Walter S.  1956.  Speech differences along the Ontario-United States border.  III.  Pronunciation.  Journal of the Canadian Linguistic Association 2/2: 41-59.
     Bloomfield, Morton.  1948.  Canadian English and its relation to eighteenth century American speech.  Journal of English and Germanic Philology 47: 59-67.
     Chambers, J.K.  1994.  An introduction to dialect topography.  English World-Wide 15/1: 35-53.
     Chambers, J.K.  2006.  Canadian Raising Retrospect and Prospect.  Canadian Journal of Linguistics 51/2-3: 105-118.
     Clarke, Sandra.  2004a.  Newfoundland English: Phonology.  In Bernd Kortmann and Edgar W. Schneider (eds.), A Handbook of varieties of English, Vol. 1 (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter), 366-382.
     Clarke, Sandra.  2004b.  Newfoundland English: Morphology and syntax.  In Kortmann and Schneider (eds.), 303-318.
     Clarke, Sandra, Ford Elms and Amani Youssef.  1995.  The third dialect of English: Some Canadian evidence.  Language Variation and Change 7: 209-228.
     De Wolf, Gaelan Dodds.  1990.  Patterns of usage in urban Canadian English.  English World-Wide 11/1: 1-31.
     Gregg, R.J.  1957a.  Notes on the pronunciation of Canadian English as spoken in Vancouver, B.C.  Journal of the Canadian Linguistic Association 3/1: 20-26.
     Gregg, R.J.  1957b.  Neutralisation and fusion of vocalic phonemes in Canadian English as spoken in the Vancouver area.  Journal of the Canadian Linguistic Association 3/2: 78-83.
     Joos, Martin.  1942.  A phonological dilemma in Canadian English.  Language 18: 141-44.
     Scargill, Matthew Henry.  1957.  Sources of Canadian English.  Journal of English and Germanic Philology 56: 610-614.
     Scargill, Matthew Henry and Henry J. Warkentyne.  1972.  The Survey of Canadian English: A report.  English Quarterly 5,3: 47-104.
     Tagliamonte, Sali A.  2006.  "So cool, right?": Canadian English entering the 21st century.  Canadian Journal of Linguistics 51/2-3: 309-332.
     Tagliamonte, Sali A. and Alexandra D’Arcy. 2004. He’s like, she’s like: The quotative system in Canadian youth.  Journal of Sociolinguistics 8/4: 493–514.
     Woods, Howard B.  1991.  Social differentiation in Ottawa English.  In Jenny Cheshire (ed.), English around the World: Sociolinguistic Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 134-149.

While one would always like to include more, and while some omissions seemed particularly difficult, students can only read so much!  The list was designed to give a few key topics somewhat greater attention than they receive in the book, and to provide students with a sample of representative work from many of the leading scholars in the field in their own words, rather than indirectly through the textbook.  Thus, it includes the heritage of dialect survey work done from the 1950s to the 1970s and again in the 1990s; the dispute over the relative importance of different inputs to the origins of Canadian English; the key phonetic variables involved in the Canadian Shift and Canadian Raising; the major sociolinguistic surveys of Vancouver and Ottawa; and the newer work on grammatical variables and discourse features now going on in Toronto.

In order to encourage participation from a broad range of students, pre-requisites were kept to a minimum: one of McGill's two introductory courses in general Linguistics, or permission of the instructor.  The latter clause allowed me to accept several promising students whose interest in the subject outweighed their background in Linguistics.  The diversity of backgrounds, of course, also introduced some challenges.  When we got to the fairly technical discussion of phonetic and phonological variation in Chapter 3 of the textbook, I devoted an entire lecture to going through a handout introducing the students to basic concepts of phonetics and phonology, to bring them up to speed and make the readings comprehensible.  To my satisfaction, this went very well, and even most of the non-linguists were able to grasp the essential features of variables like the Canadian Shift.  Naturally, the minimal pre-requisites meant that the course was not as challenging as it might have been for Linguistics majors, but I believe this disadvantage was more than compensated for by the advantage of recruiting a wider range of students.  In fact, while the Linguistics majors generally did very well in the course, several non-linguists were also among the top students, and some of these have now indicated an interest in taking more courses in Linguistics.

In addition to writing midterm and final exams, students were required to produce two written assignments.  The first was a simple fieldwork project, in which they were required to pick a variable reported in Scargill and Warkentyne's Survey of Canadian English (1972), go out and ask the same question to 20 Canadians from one of the Survey's regions, and report on any differences they observed that might be attributable to changes that have occurred in the 40 years since the original Survey was done.  This exercise was designed to emphasize that Canadian English is not just something we read about in books, but something that surrounds us as a variable and dynamic speech community, as well as to introduce students to basic techniques of hypothesis testing and quantitative analysis.

The second written assignment was a term paper, the set topics for which were deliberately chosen to address the wide range of student backgrounds that I hoped to see represented in the class.  This would allow each student to bring his or her particular set of skills to the task of looking at some aspect of Canadian English in greater depth.  For instance, while linguists were encouraged to do a linguistic analysis of some feature or variable of their choice, Education students were encouraged to plan a module and rationale for teaching aspects of Canadian English to school children; English majors could produce an analysis of the occurrence and use of features of Canadian English in a screen play or literary text; geographers could use computer cartography software to generate a map of regional variation in one of the variables we had discussed; historians could examine settlement patterns and their linguistic consequences in greater detail; and political scientists could write an essay on the effectiveness of language planning legislation.  Among the term papers I received were creative, thoughtful and well-written examples of most of these approaches, a very gratifying result.

All in all, my first effort at teaching a course dedicated to Canadian English was highly rewarding.  Some aspects of the course will no doubt change as it evolves in future years, but its basic plan seems to have been effective.  I hope that these reflections may be of some interest to those of my colleagues who are engaged in similar endeavors, and I would be happy to hear from anyone who has questions or comments about what I have discussed here.  Please contact me at: charles.boberg@mcgill.ca.