IB and Linguistics

All Things Linguistic has a post about trying to incorporate linguistics into the International Baccalaurate Extended Essay. For those unfamiliar with the program, the Extended Essay is the capstone project for the IB program as a whole, which takes the form of a self-directed research project. It’s ostensibly pretty open-ended, but in practice the necessity of finding qualified graders tends to limit the sorts of subjects a student can write on. As a former IB kid and a high school protolinguist myself, I thought I should share my story about trying to do a linguistics-focused EE. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t end well.)

I started to get into linguistics around the age of 13, and by the time I entered high school already knew that this is what I wanted to do with my life. By the time my EE rolled around, I’d already made several attempts at incorporating linguistics into my IB experience: My TOK presentation was focused on cross-linguistic differences in things like tense and evidentiality, and I’d managed to find an English teacher (thanks, Ken Ralston!) who had majored in linguistics in undergrad and who helped me a lot with understanding the linguistics texts I was reading. Incorporating linguistics into my EE seemed like the logical next step.

My Higher Levels were Chinese B1, Math, English (because of California state requirements, my school taught everyone the English HL curriculum regardless what you were officially registered for, so nearly everyone just used it towards their IB requirements), and Music. I wasn’t keen on writing my EE in Chinese – I didn’t quite have the level of fluency required to write something interesting, and I’m no good at writing essays I’m not interested in. In retrospect, I really should have done either some aspect of mathematical linguistics or worked with my English teacher (who, as mentioned, had a BA in linguistics) to come up with something; instead, I went for the crazier option and tried to write a linguistics EE in Music.

At the time, this felt like a pretty reasonable choice: I had recently come across Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s Generative Theory of Tonal Music (GTTM), which was a mid-80s attempt to apply generative linguistics to the theory of Western classical music. It’s a good book, and well worth a read, though the theoretical content (from both the linguistics and the music side!) is pretty dated. I was really excited about the idea of combining my two biggest passions.

But there was something funny about GTTM: Throughout the text, a significant portion of their formalization is couched in the notion of “preference rules” – rules that were not absolute, but rather ranked in some fashion (Lerdahl and Jackendoff don’t actually rank them, stating that they consider that an empirical problem for future research) and thus capable of overriding each other. If you’ve had any formal phonological theory, this should be sounding a lot like Optimality Theory (OT), which is the predominant theoretical framework in that field. I had encountered OT early in high school (it was actually my first brush with actual theoretical linguistics), and I was really enthusiastic about it.

But OT was only really introduced around 1993 – 10 years after GTTM was published! Lerdahl and Jackendoff seemed, to me, to be so clearly building up an OT account of musical phenomena, but they just didn’t have the right tools, yet! When I realized this, I realized that there was an opportunity for me to do something new and interesting – and so, my Music & Linguistics EE was born. What I handed in was basically a translation of the Metrical Structure chapter of GTTM into OT language.

Here’s the problem with this: My EE did not wind up qualifying as a Music Extended Essay! This is the downside of being an extremely self-motivated high schooler: I went ahead and wrote almost my entire EE without once talking it through with my advisor (the music teacher – thanks, David Williamson!). As the deadline neared, my advisor did eventually drag me in for a meeting and look over the monstrosity I was writing, whereupon he noticed that it a) didn’t analyze any one piece of music in depth, and b) didn’t have a music-historical component, two essential aspects of a music EE. I made a last-ditch attempt to incorporate analyses of particular pieces, but the problem was that the kind of analysis my essay lent itself to is not the kind the IB Music program wants: The only tools my paper had at its disposal were basically tools for analyzing the rhythmic structure of single-line melodies, but the IB wanted a deeper look at the structural, harmonic, and emotional content of a significant piece.

In the end, my graders were generous: I passed the EE. That’s about all that can be said for it – I got no points beyond those award for completion.

Do I regret doing a linguistics EE? No, not really: I learned a lot in the process, and having a significant piece of linguistics-related writing I think served me well in the college application process. My overall grades were good enough that I could afford the hit in points I took on my EE, and, well, here’s the thing about high school grades: As soon as you’re into college, they don’t matter a whit. That said, I can’t say that I’d recommend this strategy, either. If you’re an IB protolinguist looking to do an EE in linguistics, here would be my recommendations:

Find the right advisor: Try to find an advisor who is sympathetic to your interests in linguistics, and talk to them early and often about how to make your essay work. (I recognize this won’t be possible for many people, but seriously: If you’re lucky enough to have a sympathetic teacher, don’t waste that opportunity like I did!)

Pick the right subject: Of the core IB subjects, I think your best bets are A1 language (for a topic on pragmatics, phonology e.g. of poetry, sociolinguistics, etc.) and Math (for something more theoretically-driven). Of the rarer courses, your best bets are probably Psychology (for experimental work) and Computer Science (for computational ling).

Read the guidelines before you pick a topic: Before you even start to brainstorm, make sure you know what a normal, non-linguistics EE would be in that subject.

Stop worrying about it: You may find that you’ve got a subject that really interests you but that doesn’t fit the guidelines – in this case, just make your peace with not getting a great score and write a good essay! Alternatively, you might find that you have an idea for a perfectly good non-linguistics essay in some subject; in that case, write that essay, instead, and find other ways to keep linguistics in your life! Personally, I think TOK is probably a great place to do more linguistics in the IB, so if you’ve already got a good EE topic, do your linguistics there, instead. Either way, you’re going to turn out fine: You’ve still got many, many years of linguisticking ahead of you.

Good luck, IBers – it’s a crazy program, but that’s why we love it.