Linguistics: an introduction

TT tutor Ocean introduces a fascinating field of study.

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When I tell people I’m a linguist, the first thing they usually ask me is: ‘‘what languages do you study?’’. But linguists, unlike polyglots, study how language works. That can be from a universal perspective (e.g. what grammar signed and spoken languages have in common) or for a specific language (e.g. which varieties of Spanish have a ‘th’ sound, and which do not).

I think language students and aspiring polyglots should all have a basic knowledge of Linguistics. In my personal experience, there are so many times when that theoretical understanding has helped me to master a learning technique, or a grammar point, or a difficult sound.

Take vocabulary: it can be a pain in the neck to memorise, and I used to think that quantity and repetition mattered more than quality. At university, I learned about several language acquisition studies which demonstrated that vocabulary retention was highest when subjects practised their word lists before going to sleep. This was actually something gleaned from the more general area of psychology and neuroscience, which meant I could use that ‘before-bed’ technique to learn not only vocabulary, but all sorts of information I might need – for exams, for interviews, or just for fun.

Something even trickier for me to get the hang of was verb conjugation. In formal Arabic, I knew that verb conjugation changes based on gender and number, but I couldn’t get my head around it until I thought about morphology: the study of the ‘shape’ of words. Morphemes are grammatically significant chunks of words, e.g. ‘quickly’ is composed of two morphemes: ‘quick’ (a free morpheme – it can exist as its own word), and ‘-ly’ (a bound morpheme – it can’t exist on its own). By breaking up individual words into these free and bound morphemes, I was able to better understand the structure of Arabic conjugations. A major part of speaking a new language is being able to apply general grammatical rules to new words, and verb morphology allowed me to apply conjugations to unfamiliar verbs instantly.

My favourite area of Linguistics is probably phonetics, which is simply the study of sounds. If you ever come across a word in a foreign language that you just can’t get right sound-wise, look up an International Phonetic Alphabet transcription of the pronunciation. Using the IPA charts, I was able to master the pronunciations of various tricky sounds in Mandarin that simply can’t be represented by the simple English alphabet.

So, when you get the chance, look up an area of Linguistics that appeals to you, or that addresses a part of language learning that stumps you. The internet is a fantastic resource, and here are a few sites you can check out to get you started:

All Things Linguistic – an interesting blog with accessible articles:

Leaky Grammar – a more advanced blog with excellent language learning resources:

The IPA Chart with Sounds – a useful tool and good way to get to know different sounds in your own time:

If you or your child would like to learn more about Linguistics, then feel free to get in touch to find out how we might be able to assist you. Visit the Titanium Tutors website for more information!

Blog Post Crafted by Ocean

Subjects Taught: French, English, Spanish, Linguistics, Interview Preparation

Background: Ocean read Linguistics and Management at Cambridge University, before studying for her Masters in Applied Linguistics at the UCL Institute of Education. In the past five years, she has tutored French GCSE and A Level, Academic English for Masters level, English as a Foreign Language, Spanish GCSE, and has coached students for university and business interviews. Her particular area of expertise is fluency and accuracy in speech, involving everything from drilling verb forms to confidence-building.

Fun Fact: Ocean plays the guitar, and writes songs in all three languages that she speaks. So far, though, the only person to request an album is her grandmother…