COOL CLASSES: “Modality and Language: Mandarin and ASL as Examples”

This co-taught linguistics course, which explores five issues in which modality effects might be evidenced in Mandarin and American Sign Language, is experimental, as the professors and students form and test hypotheses against data together.

Class name: Modality and Language: Mandarin and ASL as Examples

Co-taught by: C.V. Starr Professor of Asian Studies; Associate Professor of Chinese and Linguistics Shizhe Huang and Swarthmore College Professor of Linguistics and Social Justice Donna Jo Napoli


Here’s what Huang and Napoli have to say about their course:

In this course we look at five issues where modality effects might be expected to be evidenced: word formation, classifiers, word order, existence/presentation, and time frame. We compare the data on Mandarin and American Sign Language and discuss possible ramifications for linguistic theory.

Students engage in scientific investigation through hypothesis formulation and hypothesis testing against data, and study and discover effects of modality on spoken and sign languages through collaborative efforts.

We have collaborated over the past 25 years to grow linguistics at the Tri-Co, but we have never taught a course together. So when Donna Jo approached me to put our expertise together, she in sign language and me in Chinese linguistics, it was a no brainer. It’s an experimental course where all of us, professors and students, will be exploring issues together. We thought it would be fun and instructive for students to see us tackle issues as they arise, with open-ended possibilities. The two of us are hoping a joint research project might emerge from co-teaching this course. That’d be great, wouldn’t it?

This is an honest course in the sense that we pose questions we don’t know the answer to—and perhaps they are questions no one has asked. We are hoping that students will feel empowered by being in such an experimental course. We do.

We also are encouraged by recent trends in education to look at issues from multiple perspectives and disciplines.  Although we are both linguists, the nature of our own research areas has been relatively far apart, so it feels to me as though we are offering different, but complementary, perspectives on the materials—and that’s exciting for us—so we hope the students will feel that same excitement.


See what other courses the Tri-College Department of Linguistics is offering this semester.

Cool Classes is a recurring series on the Haverblog that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford College experience. 

Photo of Professors Napoli (center) and Huang (right, foreground) by Claire Blood-Cheney ’20.