Studying English Language at University


I’ve had some questions from college students regarding English degrees and I thought it would be nice to put all the information in one big post to clear up some confusion. But since I studied both English Language and Literature, it’s difficult to be as informative as possible without making this post over 5,000 words long. So, I’m going to break things down and have a post focusing on just English Language, a separate one on just English Literature and then maybe one on the pros and cons to a joint honours degree in English Language and English Literature. The aim of these posts is to help potential students decide which English course sounds right for them, and to give them a little advice to help them feel more prepared for university.

An English Language undergraduate degree is concerned with developing an understanding of… well, the English Language. You will learn things like the underlying grammatical structure of English (grammar and syntax), the sounds patterns in the English language (phonetics and phonology), how humans acquire language (language development and acquisition), how communication differs between humans and animals, and how language and culture are linked. I loved studying English Language, and the first thing I say to students thinking of taking the course is that it will challenge everything they think they know about the English language.

If you’re anything like me, the intensive study of grammar and syntax will leave you bitter at ‘correctness’. If anything, these modules will teach you about how fluid language is. There’s really no need to be strict about being grammatically correct all the time. I’m eagle-eyed when it comes to editing professionally, but I’ve actually loosened up in my day-to-day exchanges; I enjoy twisting language and bothering less about perfecting my sentences. It’s so damn liberating.

I took some optional courses alongside my core modules so I also studied the theories of language evolution, clinical linguistics, communication and cultures, and child language and communication. English Language often dips into psychology and biology, especially if you take a module like clinical linguistics, which goes into childhood and adult illnesses and disorders that affect language and communication (e.g. strokes).

You will be looking at psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic theories, research and methodologies. This course will challenge you and will make you think critically. No one expects you to jump in knowing everything there is to know about meticulously analysing and critiquing everything you read, but it’s definitely something you will find yourself doing automatically (and really well). You will need to remember theories, names and dates for exams. To score higher marks, you need to bring in external (so not already covered by the lecturer) research and articles criticising and/or supporting the theories you’re talking about too. You need to go the extra mile and think well outside the box if you’re aiming for a first class degree.

A basic understanding of Excel will help save you time, but you will be taught how to use it for research purposes anyway. You’re going to use databases like CHILDES to analyse transcripts for assignments, and you will learn how to create your own transcripts to add to such databases too. You’re also going to learn a lot about ethics and research because you’re going to have to do your own research when it comes to the dissertation.

You don’t need to be a bookworm to take this course. The only required reading is from textbooks/journals or additional sources the lecturers give you. Unlike Literature, English Language can be enjoyed by people with little to no interest in novels because the degree is about language. You also don’t need an A Level in English Language to take this course or to do well in it. If you took A Level Psychology and enjoyed it then you might enjoy English Language too.

This post is just an overview of an English Language degree, you will find your course varies depending on where you go and which modules you pick, but the general gist of the degree remains the same at any university (in the UK).

If you’re interested in becoming a speech therapist (which requires studying for a Masters in Speech Therapy), I’d suggest looking for undergraduate courses that offer a placement year. Most universities offering a Masters in Speech Therapy only take on students with some experience of working with adults or children with speech difficulties. Your best bet is to use the placement year to develop your CV, which will put you in a great position for your Masters application. Look for work experience at hospitals or clinics where you can work with/shadow a speech therapist. Alternatively, fill up your long summer holidays with work experience! For those interested in teaching, some universities offer ELT (English Language Teaching) modules too.

Recommended: look up some noteworthy linguists and their research (Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker and David Crystal are my favourites). I believe Chomsky, Pinker and Crystal all have a few educational videos on YouTube, watch those! Look up documentaries on Genie, Oxana Malaya, Nim Chimpsky and Koko; you will look at cases such as these on modules that examine language development and acquisition. The video at the end of this post, ‘Will English Always Be the Global Language?’ is an example of the kind of discussions you might have in some of your English Language seminars.

In terms of reading, get Mastering Advanced English Language by Sara Thorn (Palgrave Master Series). This was one of the compulsory books for my first-year modules and it helped a lot. The following chapters would give you a great headstart for your first year: The Structure of English, Phonetics and Phonology, Some Basic Concepts, Language Variation: regional and social, and Child Language.

Up next: Studying English Literature at University.