Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Why Study Language?

Kayleigh Johnson- third year undergraduate, studying English Language at De Montfort University, Leicester. 2016 (c).

Recently I was asked the question "what can you really do with an English degree?" followed by a smile to suggest I'm wasting my time. As a linguist this infuriated me to begin with, then I realised people simply underestimate the study of the English language. So I set myself the task of asking why the study of language is important and how it impacts the real world. It is not a wasted degree as I'm often told, just because it doesn't lead to a specific career path like medicine or fashion.

Why is language important?

Look around you. How many words can you see? I assume more than you expected, not including this webpage. Think about how often we see words: texts, emails, letters, posters, packaging, posters, books, newspapers, on the internet, e.t.c. Then consider those you hear: conversation, television, radio, iPods, audio books, being taught a different subject e.t.c. You begin to notice how these words are used for purposes, such as advertising, marketing, business, maintaining/building relationships.. such things which are useful in the world of work.

What is language?

Language is a tool for communication; consisting of words which are governed by rules. Language was created by our ancestors, it defines us as beings, it makes us human. Language is who we are. It allows us to interact and influence people globally. Linguistics is a scientific study of language. It overlaps with other sciences such as psychology and sociology. It is classed as a science due to its theories, real world application, and analytical methods.

Common misconceptions 

English Language is just reading and writing.
English Language is mostly essays on books and spelling tests.
I have never been marked on my ability to spell words like vehicle (as I was in primary).
At no point in my degree was I forced to read or analyse any Shakespearean texts.
I have never been marked on my ability to decide word class: 'table is a noun'.

What areas may you learn doing a language degree?

(subject to degree type and university)
This list is very general, and is not all inclusive.
  • History and comparative linguistics (evolution, change, printing press, great vowel shift) 
  • Creating words (neologisms, borrowing, blending)
  • Language acquisition (how and when we learn language)
  • Language and gender/race/religion/culture/politics/law
  • Semantics and pragmatics (word meanings)
  • Persuasion (rhetoric and advertising)
  • Grammar (morphology, syntax, phonology)
  • Bilingualism vs monolingualism 
  • Neurolinguistics (Language processing in the brain) 
  • Psycholinguistics (Language function in the mind)
  • Sociolinguistics (Language and society)
  • Language disability 
  • The internet's effects on language (emoticons, word spread)
  • Variations of English (i.e. American)
  • Pidgins and creoles 
  • Jargon, taboo, slang and swearing
  • Standard English and received pronunciation
  • Determinism vs prescriptivism 
  • Animal communication
  • Stylistics (patterns in discourse)
  • Semiotics (Signs and symbols) 
  • Corpus linguistics 
  • Lexicography (word classes, definitions, etymology)
  • Paralinguistics (body language, facial expression, tone, intonation)
  • Dialectology and accents
  • Typography (type face, line length, why you're currently reading a list)
  • Orthography (how to write language i.e. capitals, word breaks)
  • Education (teaching strategies) 
  • Cognitive science 
  • Linguistic anthropology (language influences social life)
  • Computational linguistics
  • Relativity (language and cognition) 

What skills does a language degree provide?
  • Understanding of how languages work and function, allowing easy accessibility and understanding of foreign languages and sign languages. 
  • Ability to research and form own ideas to discuss in papers.
  • Advanced ability to read, interpret and analyse texts.
  • Advanced writing skills to produce documents or purposeful texts.
  • Communication, how to convey ideas in speech, how to present yourself and your ideas in a confident manner. (Useful for job interviews, for communications, for advertising)
  • Discussion and analysis of own/others ideas.
  • Ability to persuade and not be persuaded by industry techniques. 
  • Knowledge of how we use language, how it changes, how that interacts with society. (Useful for marketing, advertising e.t.c)

Where can a language degree lead you (job)?
"So you want to be a teacher?"
Language can be useful for many of the following job roles:
(note some may require extended study or additional languages)

  • Advertising
  • Analysts (used in secret services and courts)
  • Communications 
  • Copy editior/ proof reader
  • Cryptanalyst (analyse information systems for hidden aspects)  
  • Editorial assistant 
  • Forensic linguistics (language of law, crime investigation) 
  • Interpreting 
  • Lexicography (Dictionary writing and editing) 
  • Linguist (Study language use for research) 
  • Lawyer linguists (court of justice)
  • Information officer
  • Intelligence services (military intelligence)
  • Public realtions officer 
  • Social researcher
  • Speech therapy/pathology (Improving speech, i.e. children or stroke victims)
  • Teaching (including English as a second language) 
  • Translating 

Things a non linguist probably wouldn't consider.

  • Take the word - cat. You associated that with an image of a small animal, with four legs and fur (generally). Is our association random? Is there a reason we refer to this concept with this specific word? (Saussure) 
  • Does our language shape our thoughts or do our thoughts shape our language? (Sapir-Whorf) 
  • How does society and situation impact our use of language? (To understand this sort of question leads us to form social relationships, also useful in jobs)
  • Do all languages follow the same principles? Do language universals exist and what is responsible for them?
  • Where did language come from? Which languages did we evolve from? (See proto-indo-european language tree) 
  • Can we truly express our emotion through words? Or do we rely on paralinguistic features such as body language, facial expression, tone of voice, e.t.c. (this is my dissertation topic)
  • Is texting bad for the English Language?
    (David Crystal [key linguist] on It's only a theory - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h79V_qUp91M )
  • How would you define words (determiners and prepositions) such as: a, the, on, from ?

How does a language degree effect a non linguist? 

Consider, yourself or your child have speech or processing difficulties, would you want the help of a professional speech therapist?
If you needed to know the meaning of a word would you want the help of a definition written by a lexicographer?
Would you be able to communicate as efficiently without your English teachers?
If you could win a court case because an opposing statement had hidden aspects in language, would you tell the analyser of the statement that they'd wasted a degree?

You can get a lot of use out of an English Language degree. 

Language students have their say on Why I study English Language


"there's nothing more interesting to me than finding out how I came to speak the way I do, how many different things have influenced me and how my generation of speech will influence the future. It's such an interesting course with so many branches that go really deep into research" - Jessica Beasley DMU


"I picked English Language mostly because I enjoyed the subject [...] I decided to just apply to do what I was best at and enjoyed [...] which was language!" - Kershia Field DMU
smile emoticonKershia Field DMU





All quotes have been used with permission. I have in no way been influenced to write this piece, nor is it advertisement for any course or university. It is simply defending a subject I adore and wish to share with others.