Linguistics is the scientific study of language. There are many specialist branches dealing with different aspects of language:
- Phonetics and Phonology: Using the International Phonetic Alphabet to describe sounds and understand how they are made (Phonetics). Phonology deals with sound systems in categorising the distinctive features of sounds, looking at recurring patterns and the distribution of sound in languages, describing how sounds interact with each other when in contact; phonemes, allophones, syllables, minimal pairs, etc.
- Semantics: the study of meaning. Generally split into 'sense' and 'reference', and deals with the relations between different linguistic units, for instance hyponymy, antonymy, synonymy, etc. Some courses may also deal with Logic and Set Theory as tools for understanding meaning. Semantics also deals with discourse analysis - conversational implicature, Grice's Maxims, etc.
- Syntax: the scientific and syntactic argumentation of grammatical structure in language: word order, grammatical functions, thematic roles, constituency tests, tree structures, phrases, wh-movement, question formation, etc. Basically, Syntax looks at how the structure of language works.
- Language Variation and Change: (Also known as Sociolinguistics) 'Language Variation' literally looks at how language varies and why. This refers to how different people use language going by social factors like age, gender, socio-economic class, and ethnicity, among others. Why should it be that different social groups speak so differently? Other areas include Standards and Dialects; Communities and Networks; Levelling and Diffusion; Language Contact (Pidgins and Creoles); and Language and Thought.
These are thought to be the main four 'core' areas of Linguistics, but there are many, many offshoots. For instance, Lexical Semantics, Neurolinguistics, Pragmatics, Historical Linguistics, Psycholinguistics, Language Acquisition, etc. The availability of courses will depend on the institution.
Generally, courses will cover a number of the core areas of linguistics; namely Phonetics and Phonology, Semantics, Syntax, and Language Variation and Change (Sociolinguistics), and even Psycholinguistics. Again, in many cases, courses will run introductory modules or lectures in the first year in order to acquaint students with these core areas before they choose specialisms in the 2nd and 3rd years of their degree.
Undergraduate courses will often offer a range of modules in the second and third years. This will allow you to tailor your own linguistic degree, so that it suits your interests in language whilst keeping it relevant to your future career. For example, if you plan to work in speech therapy you may choose modules on the psychology of language, language processing and language disabilities rather than sociolinguistics.
Most linguistic courses are assessed through a combination of written exams and coursework. This will obviously differ depending on the course and the institution. For example, at King's College London the BA English Language and Communication is roughly 75% coursework and 25% exam. Other universities such as York and Edinburgh may place a heavier weighting on the written exam. Types of coursework vary greatly, e.g. essays, reports, data analysis, oral presentations, mini-projects, your own language research and a final-year dissertation. The variety in the coursework is one of the best things about a linguistic degree. It's not just about churning out essay after essay; you get to present your own data, write reports and conduct your own research.
English Language is the only A-Level subject linked to Linguistics, but is not essential for admission. Indeed, there are no A-Level subject 'prerequisites' for studying Linguistics. However, when a Linguistics degree is studied in conjunction with a language, for instance 'French and Linguistics', a good A-level grade in the appropriate language is required.
There are a range of reputable universities that offer single honours English language/linguistics degrees: University of Cambridge, University College London, King's College London, The University of Edinburgh, The University of York and The University of Manchester. Offers can range from BBB - A*AA depending on the university. Use the UCAS course search tool to see a complete list of the linguistic degrees offered by UK universities.
UCAS Form & Personal Statement
- Be sure to demonstrate a keen interest and passion for language. For example, you could talk about your own personal experiences with language, show knowledge of descriptive and prescriptive attitudes or discuss the origins of English as a Germanic language.
- Show that you know what you're talking about by discussing popular linguists and theories that you may have read about or studied. You may write about language acquisition and the different perspectives of Chomsky and Skinner or you could talk specifically about a linguistic book you've read.
- Explain why you want to study linguistics and what branches are of particular interest to you. Don't just talk vaguely about 'language'; be specific and use linguistic terminology to impress whoever is reading your statement.
- Briefly discuss your career ideas after university and how a degree in English language and linguistics can help you achieve them. Do you want to become a teacher? Do you hope to work in language research? Have you considered postgraduate speech therapy courses? Show that you're committed to the subject and that you have an idea of where you're heading after your degree.
- Finally, have you done any relevant work experience that can be linked to language, e.g. journalism, working within a school or volunteering to help those with speech impediments? If not, then you could try to get work at your local newspaper or at an SLT centre. This will help demonstrate how your interest in language goes beyond academic study.
Life as a Linguistics Student
Different areas of Linguistics will require different kinds of work and levels of intensity. For instance, Phonetics and Phonology is seen by many as a skill, opposed to Language Variation and Change (Sociolinguistics), which is not so much a skill, but rather about the discussion and explanation of language phenomena. It is common for Linguistics students to find Syntax difficult and confusing. This requires the understanding of underlying grammatical structure and the drawing of tree structures.
Typically, students will be required to read extensively from set texts and textbooks to gain an adequate understanding of the subject, especially since there are so many different branches.
Graduate Destinations and Career Prospects
There a number of different routes that a linguistic student may take: teaching at all levels, teaching English as a foreign language, speech therapy (with additional training), language research, publishing and editing, journalism and the mass media. English language and linguistic students may also go on to more general careers through city graduate schemes and work within business, marketing, advertising and law. A detailed understanding of how language operates in and shapes the modern world should open the door to a wide range of career opportunities.
If you're new to sociolinguistics 'Introduction to Sociolinguistics' by Janet Holmes is very useful. It has activities throughout and doesn't assume any previous knowledge of the subject.
'The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language' by David Crystal
'Language: the Basics' by R.L Trask
'Linguistics: An Introduction' by William McGregor
'Linguistics, Sixth Edition: An Introduction to Language and Communication' by Adrian Akmajian et al.
'The Linguistics Student's Handbook' by Laurie Bauer
'Projects in Linguistics: A Practical Guide to Researching Language' by Alison Wray et al.
'Semantics (Introducing Linguistics)' by John I. Saeed
'Pragmatics (Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics)' by Stephen C. Levinson
'Limits of Language' by Mikael Parkvall
'The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind' by Steven Pinker
'Linguistics: An Introduction' by Andrew Radford et al.
'The Handbook of Linguistics (Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics)' by Mark Oronoff and Janie Rees-Miller
'Language and Politics (Edinburgh Textbooks in Applied Linguistics)' by John E. Joseph
'Linguistics: An Introduction to Linguistic Theory' by Victoria Fromkin
'Syntactic Structures' by Noam Chomsky
'Language: The Cultural Tool ' by Daniel L. Everett
Linguistics discussion forums.