Story of Human Language – great introductory audio course on linguistics

As part of doing a PhD in Computational Linguistics, I need to understand both computers and linguistics. I am fine with computers, but linguistics is not my strong point. Unfortunately, many of the linguistics books and resources are quite dry.

So, I was really happy to discover an audio course Story of Human Language from The Teaching Company taught by John McWhorter. It is quite long a covers a lot of material, but – apart from some overly long parts on universal language – it is really interesting and Professor McWhorter is a great presenter.

I actually had a chance to listen to both an audio version of the course and to see some of it on DVD. Personally, I prefer just audio for several reason.

Firstly, I can listen to the course on my MP3 player when I am walking or doing chores. Video version requires allocating dedicated time, which for such a long course would be difficult.

Secondly, I actually found visual part of the presentation quite boring – for the most part professor is just standing behind the lectern and talks from his notes. In fact, I found the visual part distracted me from the really great and expressive rhetorics.

There was a number of great section in the course, but I found the one explaining language structure of Arabic and Chinese particularly interesting. He talked about Arabic first and I was all keen to learn that language. Then, he switched over to Chinese and I found it even more fascinating. And then, there were comparisons of languages and his cat. This has to be heard to be believed.

The course is obviously available for purchase, but it is also found in quite a few libraries. If you do borrow it from the library, try requesting all volumes at once. I only requested one volume and it was quite annoying to then have to wait a long time for the rest of the course arrive. This is another way I knew for myself that the course was enjoyable, as I had plenty of other audio material to listen to otherwise.

4 thoughts on “Story of Human Language – great introductory audio course on linguistics”

  1. Fellow Teaching Company addicts can now view Yahoo groups and phpbb forums:

    A forum on each individual lecture in all recent courses:

    My posts in Robert Hazen’s “Origins of Life” forum:

    Some of my new Yahoo groups:

    Doug van Orsow

  2. Doug,

    Thanks for the links. I noticed the groups are still empty even after you pointed to them from seemingly every internet article on the Teaching Company. I guess that’s because you just started.

    I hope you get the discussions going but, in all honesty, I do not see the benefit of interaction beyond the initial endorsement of the product and the company. Certainly I have nothing more to contribute beyond what I have already said.

  3. I listened to the first part of the series, and found it quite interesting, thank you for making it available. I seem to have hit my limit with academic linguistics however. For the last few months I studied modern standard Arabic with in Damascus Syria and made great progress in an immersion environment. Linguistic study is wonderful, but sometimes you have to take a step back and study -a language- to get perspective. 😉

  4. Hi Raegan,

    Thanks for the links. It is always good to see recommended courses. There is certainly no way to diminish the importance of studying a language.

    On the other hand, (popular) linguistics may make it easier to tolerate the frustrating parts of learning a language (such as irregular pronunciation and complex tenses) by giving those exceptions interesting historical contexts and, therefore, providing some way to engage the brain and soothe the nerves.

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