The Linguistic Experiment - How words do things

The Linguistic Experiment - How words do things

Overview: An ideal PWR1 or PWR2 segue activity into in-class revision work or a peer review session, this short and simple “linguistic experiment” offers students a window into the performative nature of language, or “How to do things with words” (Austin, 1955), compelling students to pay close attention to their stylistic choices at the sentence level and the subsequent effect of those choices on their audience.

Author: Jennifer Johnson

Activity Name: The Linguistic Experiment: How words do things

Class: PWR 1/PWR 2

Activity brief description: Instructor introduces to students that they will be participants in a short linguistic experiment. The experiment consists of watching the instructor’s action carefully and writing down one sentence that captures the action. At the start of the experiment, the instructor must resist providing any context regarding the objectives of the experiment and insist students only write one sentence.  After the experiment, student share out their sentences one by one (while the teacher writes them on the board) and we analyze, as a class, what kind of tone is shaped through writerly choices involving word choice, point-of view, passive vs. active etc.

Schedule: This interactive activity works anytime during the quarter. It’s an ideal warm-up activity to a discussion of style in writing or a good “spice-things-up” end-quarter activity in a revision-heavy or “Style” workshop themed class.

Activity length: 10-20 minutes

Activity goals:

  • Students gain insight into the performative nature of language
  • Students become aware of the stylistic choices they make at the sentence level including word choice, tense, point-of-view, elaborate vs. simple etc. and the effects on audience

Activity details: While there is no student handout for this activity, more details on the activity procedure are available here.

Additional notes:

Activity option: Before I even have a chance to say that students may write in any language (accompanied by an English translation during the share-out), I usually have one or two multilingual writers who quickly inquire if they can write the sentence for the experiment in their native language. I gather such an inquiry arises because 1) students are proud of their multilingual identity or 2) they would like to demonstrate that their language can “do” something different than English. Particularly if this activity is introduced near the beginning of the quarter or before a peer review, it is a perfect opportunity to validate their multilingual identity in the PWR classroom and allow their peers (who will be reviewing their work in English) recognize the multilingual context they come from. Tip: Just don’t try writing those one or two sentences on the board…