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Invent a Language! – Teaching at Splash 2020

By Sagnik Anupam

Originally posted on his blog.

The weekend before last, on Saturday, November 14, 2020, I taught the first class of my life.

Given that I have always wanted to teach something I am passionate about to a class, I suppose my first class had to happen one day or the other. In high school, I never really got either the time or opportunity to “teach” students, so to speak. Sure, I tried to help out people as and when I could in classes, and other times, I talked very animatedly¹ about things I am passionate about, but I had never really taught to a class of students before. And this year, when I got into MIT, I decided to try to change that.

In August, I read CJ Q. ‘23’s blog post about Summer HSSP, which is a summer program run by the MIT Educational Studies Program (MIT ESP). MIT ESP hosts programs where members of the MIT community can teach middle and high school students through programs like Splash, Spark, Cascade, Summer HSSP, and Spring HSSP. Reading the blog helped me understand a bit more about how the ESP programs worked and made me think about whether I could be involved with this. As things were going to be virtual due to COVID-19, I thought I will be able to handle teaching something—because for me, at least, speaking in a Zoom call is a lot less intimidating than presenting to a crowd. And so I made my decision in August—I would teach in the next ESP program that I could register for, which happened to be Splash.

When Splash began to be publicized via dormspam², I was pretty quick to sign up. However, that led to the more problematic question—what should I teach? My mind during the days leading up to the class registration deadline was constantly shuffling between ideas, trying to think of topics that I could do justice to, given my experiences. In all honesty, I didn’t have any previous teaching experience that I could develop into a full-fledged class, so I was pretty nervous about how things would turn out to be.

Ultimately, I decided to try teaching language invention (or conlanging — derived from conlang, or “constructed language”). I had studied some linguistics during my preparation for IOL³, and I had often dabbled in constructing my own languages during school, and although I didn’t feel qualified to talk about this, I thought it was the topic I could speak best about. If nothing else, I reasoned with myself, I will be able to show at least some people something new and encourage them to find the resources that had been developed by more qualified people. In that way, in the utilitarian calculus way of thinking, I would at least end up doing more good than harm, even if I accidentally said something misleading or incorrect during my class.

Splash policy requires each class to have co-teachers, so once I had decided broadly what I would be talking about, I messaged two of my friends whom I first met at the Indian IOL camp, Rujul G. ‘22, and Shinjini G. ‘22. Together, we decided to teach a class titled “Invent a Language!” at Splash this year.

For my section of the slides, I decided to add my own stuff for the history of conlanging and purpose of conlanging, as well as sprinkle in some (read: numerous) examples because I love talking about random trivia associated with language invention. While making my slides, I tried to balance out my more esoteric conlanging references with others that would have been more visibly seen in pop culture. The end result? I ended up talking about everything including the history of the Elvish languages in the Lord of the Rings, Ubese, Blissymbolics, and Transcendental Algebra.

Finally, the day of the class dawned, or should I say the night? As the class was scheduled within the constraints of Eastern Time, I ended up teaching it at 1:30 AM (Sunday morning) in my timezone. One of my worries was that people may not interact much in our class and we may not see as much participation, which might have led to a bit of awkwardness in the Zoom call as some of my slides called for extensive audience participation. However, a lot of people registered for our class (we were almost at full capacity!) and many of them were happy to talk about why they thought certain linguistic phenomena were occurring and how we could explain any contradictions or anomalies. Overall, I thought it was a great teaching experience, and I hope to continue teaching this class (and others, hopefully!) in future ESP programs.

Bonus Content:

If you made it to the end of this blog post, I would like to share some resources to get started with conlanging. These are also helpful if you are interested in fantasy worldbuilding or general linguistics.

Happy conlanging!

  1. read: with lots of hand waving
  2. This refers to the numerous mailing lists that we have. At MIT, we can create our own mailing lists using our MIT emails and add others to them, and over time this has led to the creation of a few dorm-wide mailing lists that have a large membership. So the most effective way to raise awareness among the MIT student body (at least for the undergrads) is to publicize events or posting reminders by emailing them to all the dorm-wide mailing lists, or “dormspam.”
  3. The International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL) is an international linguistics competition for school students. More details here.

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