Miracles of Human Language

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Below is a guest post by Marten van der Meulen, who is a teaching assistant for this course.

On March 30th, the Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC) Miracles of Human Language: an Introduction to Linguistics will start on Coursera. The course is facilitated by Leiden University, and is given by Marc van Oostendorp, professor at Leiden University and the Meertens Institute. Subscribing is still possible.

Miracles of Human Language (MHL for friends) aims at providing an introduction both to the content of linguistic studies and in the research aims and techniques used in linguistics. The different weeks cover different traditional subdisciplines of linguistics, such as phonetics and phonology (Week 1) and semantics and pragmatics (Week 4). Aspects of these subjects are explained in lecture videos. This is, however, only the framework: the course aims at doing much more.

Two ways are used to show participants more about the workings of linguistics. Firstly, every week features informants, who are queried about a certain aspect of their language (e.g. consonants, or politeness). These informants come from very different languages and language families, such as Basque, Gungbe and Mandarin Chinese. Using actual language users rather than merely written examples will make the languages more real for participants. Also, as participants will have to analyse the linguistic samples provided by the informants, this will give a glimpse into the methods of linguistic field work.

The other way in which MHL goes beyond traditional knowledge-based courses is by including discussions. In these discussions two teaching assistants, Marten van der Meulen and Inge Otto, ask questions of prof Van Oostendorp, based on the contents of the lecture videos of the week. In doing so, they not only delve deeper into the issues raised in the lecture videos, but they also show what kind of paths of thinking people can take after watching the videos. Additionally, we hope that participants will identify with the students in these discussions, thereby absorbing the material in a better way.

Finally, MHL strives at showing the breadth and depth of linguistics as a scholarly discipline. This is achieved by explaining about the different fields within linguistics, but also by interviewing real-life linguists. They are asked to explain about their own research, as well as comment on interesting questions in the field. We interviewed five very different linguists: Noam Chomsky (on general linguistics), Adele Goldberg (on the constructionist approach), Claartje Levelt (on language acquisition), Victoria Nyst (on sign language), and Barend Beekhuizen (on computational semantics).

All in all, we have tried to make a varied and exciting course, which will provide people with a basic understanding of linguistics, and which will hopefully inspire people to pursue further studies in linguistics in one form or other.

Above is a guest post by Marten van der Meulen.


  1. Free Coursera Intro to Linguistics course starting! | Aliens in This World said,

    March 31, 2015 @ 7:02 pm

    […] Here's more info about it, over on Language Log. […]

  2. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 31, 2015 @ 7:22 pm

    I'm trying to take this course, but I'm not sure I'll be able to give the time it deserves.

  3. Rubrick said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 12:33 am

    Sounds promising, though the title is rather hyperbolic. Language itself might be deemed a "miracle", but surely not every aspect of it is itself a miracle!

  4. michael farris said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 3:22 am

    @Rubrick, Granted it's hyperbole, but on the other hand "The Mundane Aspects of Human Language" would probably not attract many students…

  5. Marten said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 5:50 am

    @Ralph, the title had to do with marketing. We are not completely our own boss :) But, you know, many aspects are actually pretty miraculous if you don't know about it (even something 'mundane' as VSO word order).

  6. BlueLoom said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 8:48 am

    I signed up for the course as a non-certificate participant. I'm interested in following the lectures, but not in taking quizzes, etc. At a certain point in life, one wants to acquire new info solely for the joy of learning, not for taking exams, earning certificates, getting credits, etc. I guess that's why a lot of us gray-heads are glued to our computers (or tablets), watching MOOCs. Many thanks to Leiden Univ for offering a non-paying option for this course.

  7. AnnDeeQ said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 10:15 am

    I'm also taking this course as a non-certificate student. I do take the quizzes because they give me feedback about whether I understood what the professor wants me to learn. I do the readings, but I never do the papers or other "homework" required. I don't need the units; I don't need the grade. But I love to learn.

    BTW, I'm a long-time lurker in this forum, and I've enjoyed reading it.

  8. Diana Alicia Enriquez said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 8:07 pm

    I´m taking this MOOC and I find it really interesting! The lectures are easy and clear as well as the reading material. I think it´s a great opportunity for anyone who is curious about languages and linguistic. I highly recommend it.

  9. Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: No “pure” language | Loving Language said,

    April 13, 2015 @ 8:04 pm

    […] Miracles of Human Language […]

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