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Student initiative brings awareness to linguistics studies

Representatives from the Wug Life Initiative presented at the Governing Council Meeting at U of T Scarborough on February 15. Pictured from left to right - Professor Yoonjung Kang (Associate Director of Linguistics and Psycholinguistics), Nazia Mohsin (LSA President 2016-2017), Gail Naraine (Assistant to the Director), Irene Delicano (LSA Vice President 2016-2017) and Rachel Soo (former LSA President, 2014-2016). (Photo courtesy of the Linguistics Student Association)

A unique initiative started by a group of U of T Scarborough students is introducing high schoolers to the science of language – and encouraging them to study it.

“I had no idea what linguistics studies was until I got to university,” says Rachel Soo (BA, 2016), co-founder of the Wug Life initiative and former president of the Linguistics Student Association (LSA). “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted pursue, so I sort of stumbled into the program.”

Linguistics, which is the scientific study of human language, is a multi-faceted field but students often confuse it with the study of languages, or aren’t familiar enough with the subject to even consider it. The Wug Life, a play on the term “thug life” and a famous 1958 linguistics experiment, was created in 2014 with two goals – program awareness and recruitment.

“If high school students had more information prior to applying, they would know what sort of courses were required for them to get into linguistics and then not have to make up that time once they got into U of T Scarborough,” says Soo.

With that in mind, the Wug Life team conducts scheduled high school interactive presentations that introduce high school students to the discipline.

“One activity that we do is introduce students to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA),” says Irene Delicano, current Vice President of the LSA and a fourth-year student double majoring in Linguistics Co-op and French.

IPA is a system designed to have a one-to-one spelling-sound correspondence.

“We have small cards where students can either practice writing their own names in IPA, or we write it out for them,” she says. “It's a neat activity because when it's written out, IPA looks like this mysterious code.”

The awareness initiative began with Soo and Connie Ting, when both were heavily involved in the LSA. Soo and Ting collaborated with Sarah Quevedo, then leader of the U of T Mississauga Linguistics League, a student run linguistics club. Soo also credits Shelby Verboven, U of T Scarborough’s director of admissions & student recruitment, for helping to make their vision a reality with a wide reach.

“Typically what we try to stress is that linguistics is applicable to almost everything,” says Soo. “Language is intrinsically tied to what it means to be human, so we stress that linguistics can be applied to fields like journalism, education, clinical-related fields and government-related fields.”

Soo says there’s a preconceived notion that linguistics students have to be fluent in many languages. And while it’s true that linguistic students break down the structures of languages, there is no absolute rule that students need to be fluent in the language they’re breaking down.

“High school students typically haven’t even heard of linguistics at all,” she says. “We don’t have to break down those stereotypes.”

“We go in and introduce them to linguistics as it should be,” she says.


© University of Toronto Scarborough