Descriptive linguistics is a discipline in which the principles of linguistics, or the scientific study of language, are presented through description of one language. Through this process, scholars seek to identify the general linguistic principles that also characterize other languages. It is a required course for many disciplines, in that it combines understanding of the technical materials of language (phonemes, morphemes, syntax, pragmatics, etc.) with critical thinking skills that are universally appreciated. Problem-solving and analysis are keys to discovering the linguistic units that all humans use in their languages. As language is a uniquely human phenomenon that many consider to be species-specific and uniform, its study can help us better understand who we are as members of the species.
The descriptive linguistics class described in this article is a foundational course that must meet minimum information standards in order to "feed" into later coursework. For many students, descriptive linguistics is difficult. Teaching the material online has several potential pitfalls, some common to all online courses and some unique to the material and discipline.
The discipline-specific challenges include the following: First, the sheer amount of time needed to fully understand the technical aspects of the field is difficult to require online. Students enter the course site, interact with the materials, and leave as they wish; their time commitment may not be adequate for the subject matter. Second, the technical aspects of the subject—including the need to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) character set and binary "trees" to show phrasal components—complicate the process of creating online content (instructor) and submitting responses (students). Although it is relatively easy to download the IPA fonts from the Summer Institute of Linguistics Web site, they are not supported by all computers. Students without adequate software may be at a disadvantage.