Principles of programme design: joint honours - linguistics + a modern foreign language

Author: Paul Rowlett


A joint-honours programme combining linguistics and a modern foreign language needs to stand up as a respectable diet in linguistics, that is, introduce basic notions of both pure and applied linguistics early on and allow students to go on to develop either depth or breadth of knowledge / understanding within the discipline. Structural constraints permitting, it should also fully capitalise upon the dual interests of the students, that is, exploit their competence in modern foreign languages to support and inform their work in linguistics and, conversely, make sure that their familiarity with notions from linguistics consolidates their acquisition of modern-foreign-language competence.

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While the two disciplines in a joint-honours programme can be quite unrelated and independent of each other (e.g., Chemistry and Business Studies), this does not have to be the case. Indeed, linguistics and a modern foreign language (MFL) is an obvious combination which lends itself to mutually supportive symbiosis. Factors likely to determine - at least in part - the nature of the symbiotic relationship include:

  1. the nature of the MFL provision (emphasis on literary studies, area studies or communicative competence): literary MFL students may be more appreciative of stylistics modules within linguistics than those following non-literary MFL modules, those following MFL modules with an accent on area studies may enjoy historical or sociolinguistics modules, and those following communicative MFL modules might benefit from discourse modules;
  2. the respective weighting of the two disciplines in the combination: the extent (if any) to which MFL is to support linguistics or linguistics to support MFL;
  3. whether linguistics and MFL are provided by separate departments or within the same department (see below).

Where MFL and linguistics provision is drawn from pre-exisiting modules devised in distinct departments for students on relevant single-honours programmes, designing the curriculum for the joint-honours programme amounts to picking an appropriate (possibly imbalanced; see (b) above) subset of modules available in the two disciplines. For MFL, this is likely to include all core language modules. However, on grounds of academic desirability (not to mention timetabling constraints), the breadth of choice of literary/area-studies modules may be restricted. For linguistics, the issues are different. Significantly, linguistics is likely to be an entirely new area of study for students, and the need for careful introduction is even more important in the case of joint-honours programmes than it is in single-honours programmes. Further, in comparison with (literary/area studies within) MFL, linguistics is fairly narrowly defined, both in its core/pure areas and its peripheral/applied areas, and curriculum designers will probably want to take this into consideration. In particular, while it would doubtless be desirable for the compulsory first-year introductory-linguistics diet of modules on joint-honours programmes to cover basic notions in both core/pure linguistics (phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics) and peripheral/applied linguistics (e.g., sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, language acquisition, language change), curriculum designers will need to consider whether, at later stages in the programme, breadth of coverage should be maintained or sacrificed in favour of depth, for example, obliging students to specialise either in certain core/pure areas or in certain peripheral/applied areas but not both. Further, and again unlike literary/area studies within MFL, there is a clear route of progression within each area of (theoretical) linguistics from introductory to advanced level. This may well impose constraints on the kind of module selection that might be permitted within a joint-honours programme. (Programmes which follow this pattern are available, for example, at the University of Manchester (

A somewhat different situation is likely to be found where MFL and linguistics provision comes from a single department and where provision in one area is designed (more or less) exclusively for students following modules in the other area. For example, MFL may be taught by staff within a department of linguistics; more commonly, however, linguistics will be taught by staff within a department of modern languages. While the overall breadth of expertise in linguistics and MFL of staff here is unlikely to be as great as in the setup described in the previous paragraph (a fact which will doubtless have consequences for the range of modules to be offered after the first year), such a setup does have the advantage of more readily allowing the mutually supportive symbiotic relationship between provision in the two areas to be capitalised upon. For example, if the linguistics modules are followed exclusively by students on the joint-honours programme with MFL, then they can be designed accordingly: they can exploit familiarity within the student body with languages other than English. Conversely, if the MFL modules are followed exclusively by linguistics students, they can exploit students' familiarity with various areas of linguistics. Finally, one kind of linguistic expertise which is possibly more common in a modern-languages department rather than a linguistics department is expertise in the history and/or linguistics of the particular MFL. And such expertise allows full exploitation of the dual interests of the students: the combination of the study of the MFL with that of linguistics within a language-specific linguistics module. (Programmes which follow this pattern are available, for example, at the University of Salford ( (linguistics taught within a modern-languages department) and at the University of York ( (modern languages taught within a linguistics department).

What is clear is that linguistics and an MFL go together well. Not only are they two closely related disciplines, but anecdotal evidence also suggests that, when they are given the chance to follow linguistics modules, MFL students enjoy them immensely, and not just the language-specific ones. The general analytical skills which students acquire in linguistics modules are useful key skills in their own right, but are also readily transferrable to MFL study, not only in terms of helping students heighten their linguistic competence, but also in terms of developing within students an appreciation of the role of language in social terms.

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