Using Linguistics to Connect High-School Students to the World


Using Linguistics to Connect High-School Students to the World

Students holding up research poster at 2023 Lingletes Linguistic Challenge

hen Colton Arney was a senior in high school, his English teacher told him about a program that would help set the trajectory for his UVA career. By the end of that fall, he had become a linguistics champion.

The program, UVA’s Lingletes Linguistic Challenge, is a community-engaged linguistics course in which the UVA students work with Virginia high school students. The Virginia high-school students are led by a team of UVA undergraduates enrolled in Professor Janay Crabtree’s Linguistics 3400/7400 course. Groups of undergraduate students are matched with groups of high school students and in weekly Zoom sessions, the undergraduate students bring in problem sets from their course and break them down for the high school students to understand and practice. The problem sets are based in world languages that are likely unfamiliar to the students, allowing them to study language patterns without the benefit of previous knowledge. 

Students Working on a Problem Set at the 2023 Lingletes Linguistic Challenge
Students Working on a Problem Set at the 2023 Lingletes Linguistic Challenge

In 2023, they studied Swahili, Tok Pisin, Gothic, Gaelic, Persian, Japanese, Hebrew, and Dutch. “We are trying to give students a look at the diversity of languages, some of which are severely moribund and have fewer than one thousand speakers left,” Crabtree expounded. The program culminates in a day-long event that brings high school students from all over Virginia to UVA to compete with each other and against each other for the title of Linglete Champion for the year.

This event is inspired by the Linguistic Olympiad International Competition, held every year in a different city across the world. Crabtree wanted to make this kind of program and competition accessible to students who might not otherwise have the opportunity for exposure to linguistics or to a preview of undergraduate study. Among other things, said Crabtree, the intention is to target rural students who might not be aware of the study of linguistics or international competitions such as the Linguistic Olympiad and who, even if they did, may not have the resources for this international travel.

Studying linguistics made the study of language, something that had seemed nebulous before, accessible

Crabtree was once one of these students. “I grew up in an extremely rural town of Smiths Grove, Kentucky and I had never heard of linguistics until I went to college,” she explained. In college, she learned about linguistics and wished she had begun her studies earlier. “Studying linguistics made the study of language, something that had seemed nebulous before, accessible,” she articulated. Now that she is a linguistics expert, she wants to pass on her knowledge to a new generation.

For this academic year, the Lingletes Linguistic Challenge was held on November 11 at UVA’s Lorna Sundberg International Center. The nine competing high school students (out of thirteen who participated in the course) came from four counties and five schools across central Virginia. The winner was Theo Brockman from Western Albemarle High School. Following a lunch with the UVA students, the high-school students participated in a group competition in Armenian, then learned about the 3400 students’ research through their mentoring groups’ research presentations and finally competed in individual competitions in Swahili, Badukh, and Inukitut, with an awards ceremony that followed. Among other things, the students enjoyed getting to meet their group in person, the challenge of the competition, and the collaborative experience.

For the future, Crabtree wants to continue expanding the program, particularly reaching further into the Appalachian region and other remote areas with fewer academic opportunities for K-12 students. Some strategies that they will utilize include getting in touch with the Governor’s School to spread information about the program, continuing to canvas schools and work with the counselors’ association for K-12 schools, and reaching out to UVA Advance, a summer program for high-school students wanting to gain summer college experience. The most important part though, Crabtree said, is the relationships they have developed with previous participants, who can pass on the experience to their peers.