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Linguistics is altogether a pretty fascinating degree; where else can you combine elements of foreign language study, history, biology, physics, philosophy, sociology, psychology and more? Linguistics is essentially the science of speech, and at Cambridge it’s often said to straddle the divide between the Arts and the Sciences; you’ll study how we learn languages (acquisition and psycholinguistics), why languages change over time (historical linguistics), how we produce speech sounds (phonetics) and how these sounds come together to create meaning (phonology and morphology), what people say versus what they actually mean (semantics and pragmatics), what makes a sentence grammatically acceptable in a given language (syntax) and a whole host of other stuff. It might sound a bit daunting at first, but the course starts with the absolute basics in first year before allowing you to specialise in areas that interest you in years two and three. I personally found that my English Language and French A-Levels were useful at times, but others come without having studied a foreign language before, sometimes from a purely scientific background; there are no specific requirements other than a love for language and an eagerness to learn about it. You won’t have to pick up any additional languages during your time on the course if you don’t want to, but if you do there are fantastic resources available.
2nd year, Homerton College
The Linguistics Tripos is nearing its second birthday, previously only available as a Part II subject. Despite its newness as a separate subject, Linguistics at Cambridge has a long history within the Modern and Medieval Languages department, meaning that there are some great resources available, and linguists are taught by experts in their field; the close relationship with MML also means that you can borrow many of its papers, such as the comparative papers on The Romance Languages and Slavonic Languages. Furthermore, the recent merger with the Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics (RCEAL) means that there are now many papers available in the field of Applied Linguistics, such as Language Acquisition or Computational Linguistics. We also have a phonetics lab (it’s oddly fun sitting in a studio making weird noises), a language lab with great resources from computer programmes to foreign films for learning foreign languages if you’d like to, and a large section of the MML library is devoted to Linguistics; each college library also has a good selection of useful books.
“ If you decide to study Linguistics at Cambridge, I promise that you won’t ever look at (or listen to) language in the same way again, for better or worse! ”
In your first year, everyone takes the same four papers: Sounds and Words, Structures and Meanings, Language, Brain and Society, and History and Varieties of English. There is one lecture a week and six supervisions a term for each paper; for the supervisions you’ll have to complete assignments, which can be essays, data sets or presentations. There is a lot to cover in the first year, but it’s manageable and always interesting! For example, in the first term of Sounds and Words you’ll learn how to transcribe any language using the sound symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and construct diagrams showing what happens in the vocal tract during the production of each sound, while in Structures and Meanings you’ll become a pro at drawing syntax trees.
If you decide to study Linguistics at Cambridge, I promise that you won’t ever look at (or listen to) language in the same way again, for better or worse! You’ll start mentally transcribing what everyone says in IPA. You’ll pick up on the semantic versus pragmatic meaning in conversations. You’ll notice every accent quirk. In short, you’ll study a subject that changes how you look and helps you to understand something that permeates our everyday lives, and is genuinely fascinating.
Best thing? You can study in-depth any aspect of language that you’re interested in.
Worst thing? People still thinking we’re part of MML...