Linguistics in first year single honours courses

Author: Kersti Borjars


This document suggests ways of building up the first year of a single honours course in linguistics. It suggests that the year should consist of certain core courses introducing basic concepts relevant to the field, most importantly phonetics, grammar and semantics. In addition, there should be a set of optional courses on aspects of the field which interact with other subject areas (e.g. sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics). The document provides some ideas for text books to be used and also gives some other sources, in particular web-based facilities. The document also contains a brief discussion of assessment.

Table of contents


The first year of a single honours degree in linguistics will naturally have to provide the students with the basic terminological tool kit to allow them to move on to a more detailed study of language in their second and subsequent years. However, an equally important goal is to make students enthusiastic for the subject, which means that the purpose of learning the terminology, or indeed of having the terminology in the first place, must always be clear to students.

There are a number of core areas which need to be covered in the first-year teaching since the knowledge involved is often required in more applied courses; phonetics (with basic phonology), morphology, grammar and semantics (with pragmatics). To this one may also want to add an overview course "Topics in linguistics" in order to give the students a map of areas of interest to linguists which can help the students choose their non-core courses. Possible topics to include in such a course are: ideas about how language might have evolved, animal communication systems versus human language, language endangerment and language death and some basic history of ideas in linguistics. An introduction to linguistic change should form a core part in any single honours degree, but it may not be possible to fit it into the core part of the first year. All of these courses may well be the same for single honours as for joint honours students. These core courses will probably constitute somewhere between a third and half of the credits in the first year.

Given that linguistics is not a school subject, except as English Language where the amount of basic linguistic terminology taught appears to vary quite drastically, the first year constitutes the students' first encounter with linguistics. For this reason, it is wise to leave the development of theoretical models to the second year and hence we suggest that phonological and syntactic theory be left out of the first year syllabus. The basic data, terminology and pre-theoretical studies must be well-understood by the students before they can successfully take the step up to the level of abstraction involved in theory building.

In the first year of single honours teaching, one has the luxury of knowing that the students will carry on to do courses in the second year which involve the application of the basic concepts. However, it is still crucial that each course is self-contained in the sense that where basic concepts and terminology are introduced, the introduction of the concepts or the terminology should be clearly motivated. With each piece of terminology introduced, the students should be given the opportunity to apply it, so that it is clear to the student why the term is a useful one. This is what Spring et al (2000:116) refer to as the 'last linguistics class' method of teaching students whose main subject is not linguistics. It is, however, a good principle also in the teaching of single honours courses.

Apart from the basic courses, there should be a pool of introductory courses in more applied areas of linguistics. Some of these need not require much prior knowledge of basic linguistics terminology and can be taught in the first part of the year, others will build on the concepts taught in the core courses and are better taught in the second half of the year.

Examples of such non-core courses are basic sociolinguistics ("language and society"), basic psycholinguistics ("language and the mind") a broad typological overview ("the languages of the world"), discourse analysis or pragmatics. If the core courses are taught on the basis of English, then a course on typological variation and its limits in phonetics, morphology and syntax can also form a good extension course, i.e. Grammar through English versus Syntax and morphology. If the University has the facilities for this, students should also be encouraged to learn a foreign language, either through organised courses or through the self-study centres which are now available at many Universities (e.g. the Language Centre at Manchester University). All these courses will play an important role in making the subject come alive to the students in that they provide a link between the knowledge introduced in the core courses and experiences closer to the students everyday concerns, for instance language and gender or child language.

For all these courses, there are some principles of teaching which cut across the different topics. A first key concept is variation; there should be variation in teaching methods and in assessment methods. This requires careful planning at programme level, above the individual course. Partly for practical reasons, lectures will usually form some part of all the core courses and depending on student numbers and staff resources also of some of the other courses. This does not, however, need to be a bad thing, lectures even to quite large groups can be made varied through the introduction of PowerPoint presentations or through the use of audio tapes or video material (human language series, programmes recorded from television which can be used with permission). All courses will also benefit from some small group teaching, this can involve the students solving concrete problems in preparation, or doing some set reading in order to prepare to participate actively in a discussion, or even small fieldwork projects. Assessment should also be varied, unseen exams are likely to form some part, but problem solving or essay writing are also important. Given the wealth of linguistic material available on the internet, many inventive assignments can be based on exploring those. Some examples of such pages are the Ethnologue on the languages of the, YourDictionary: the global language resource or that which used to be the Human-Languages Page, now iLoveLanguages pages.

During the first year, students tend to appreciate courses having a set text book, rather than references to a number of texts, since these will often involve different use of terminology or even incompatible views of phenomena. At the same time, it is important that students are aware from the beginning that there are areas of linguistics where there are no clear truths, but just different ways of seeing things. In some topics, ignoring alternative ways of dealing with an issue would actually mean not teaching the subject well. It should be recognised, however, that where students are required to read texts with contrasting views, extra guidance for the reading may be required at this level. This guidance can take different shapes, but could take the form of a list of questions for the student to answer with respect to the different texts. Here it should also be recognised that linguistics is an area within which some research articles can actually be read by first-year students, especially if guidance is given. It can be quite inspiring for a student to discover that some of the research literature is accessible to them even in the early stages of their training.

The idea that linguistics is about the language that we see and hear around us is something that should be emphasised in all courses, as should the fact that languages are an inextricable part of humans and their cultures. This makes for non-prescriptive responsible linguists, but it is also a way of bringing the subject close to the students and their concerns. In courses of English grammar or historical change, current "ungrammatical" English can be used to illustrate change in progress (see Börjars & Burridge 2001 for an example), the language of advertising can be used, differences between written and spoken language can be pointed out. In courses like sociolinguistics or discourse analysis, students can make their own recordings to use for their study. In this way, the ethical issues surrounding data gathering can also be explored.

An example of a degree built around core courses and a pool of optional courses can be found at the University of Manchester's Linguistics Department (and no doubt at many other Universities too), by following this link, you can also detailed course descriptions for some of the course types mentioned above, including some suggestions for text books for the different core courses and options.


Börjars, Kersti & Kate Burridge (2001) Introducing English grammar. London: Edward Arnold.

Joseph, Brian D. (1998). Linguistics for 'everystudent'. Studies in the Linguistic Sciences 28: 123-133.

Spring, Carl A, Michael Flynn, Brian D. Joseph, Rae Moses, Susan Steele & Charlotte Webb (2000) The successful introductory course: bridging the gap for the nonmajor. Language 76:110-122.

Related links

Ethnologue, Languages of the World:

iLoveLanguages, Guide to Languages on the Web:

University of Manchester Department of Linguistics, Information for Students:

The Language Centre at Manchester University:

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