Runner up in the student award 2009: How have you been inspired by studying languages, linguistics or area studies at university?

Author: Deborah Adams


Deborah Adams, 4th year Humanities with English Language student at the Open University, was a runner up in the Subject Centre's undergraduate student essay competition 2009.

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Deborah Adams

I fell in love with my own language

One of my early memories is of going on holiday and making friends with a small Spanish girl; we must both have been about six.   I remember being amazed and not a little envious at her ability to yammer what appeared to be fluent gibberish to her parents, and to have them understand and react. I was astonished that communication could occur so easily in an entirely different code, and languages began to fascinate me. Regrettably, however, the schools I attended did not seem to share my interest in all these different, indecipherable codes, and after a somewhat undistinguished educational career, I left school at 16.  Although I had picked up the standard smattering of French, I was as linguistically challenged as the standard inhabitant of these islands.

Nonetheless, there was a tiny flame of interest still faintly flickering in the rusty linguistic compartment of my brain, and consequently when, at the elderly age of 45, I finally made the decision to study for my long-overdue degree, my logical choice of subject was languages. I have now studied Spanish at this level, and that tiny flame is burning brightly, fuelled by the oxygen of understanding different cultures, different grammatical structures, and the heady, voluptuous feeling and sound of different pronunciations.  I have even been inspired to study a classical language, Latin, and was surprised by how the rigid structure and logicality of that language engaged me. However, it was the fact that the course also required me to take certain modules investigating English language that provided the real shock.

I fell in love with my own language, English.

..." my enthusiasm has been fired ... for the sound, and the feel and the structure and the functions of language"...


This has truly astonished me. Who could have known that there was so much to discover in something I had been using without thought since I was about twelve months old?  But the further that one delves into the English language, the more there seems to be discovered, and the more there seems available to inspire.

Take the fascinating history of the language.  Its development from Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, and Norman and Latin influences is not only enthralling, but also explains the rich seam of vocabulary available to the English speaker or writer. Our very language seems to be embedded with the history of those who have come before us, leaving their indelible imprint as they crafted this astonishing tool.   Germanic or Latinate synonyms for most words, coupled with frequent French adaptations of Latin, provide a massive well of vocabulary, allowing meanings to be so finely nuanced that it is unsurprising that the British Isles has produced such an array of literary giants.

In this way, my enthusiasm has been fired not only for the sound, and the feel and the structure and the functions of language, but in the way that it can be used so beautifully to encompass emotions and communicate messages so profoundly and precisely. It has been equally inspirational to study stylistics to appreciate how great writers can manipulate our remarkable language to achieve such stunning literary effects.

And consider the extraordinary diversity of our language, and its phenomenal global spread over the last few centuries.  Because of British colonialism, and then the cultural and economic dominance of the USA, the language is now effectively a lingua franca. There are at least a billion people now on Earth who speak English, even if only at a fundamental level, and it is internationally considered the language of science, business and aviation.  It is quite astonishing to reflect on the amount of technological progress that can be made when global communication has been made so much simpler.

Think about the incredibly flexible and dynamic nature of our living language, with its ever-growing pantheon of new vocabulary being added to our language on a daily basis, as our tongue stretches to accommodate the requirements of our age.  There can be very few now who do not use the net to google and twitter, download emails, upload photos, and read or even write the occasional blog.  What would someone have understood of that sentence even twenty years ago? And that just covers a tiny portion of new vocabulary involving computer technology.

Relating to such social and cultural developments, it has been fascinating to consider how the English language has been adapted into the new media that have arisen out of current technology.  The endlessly flexible nature of English has allowed chatrooms, instant messaging, text messages and email all to develop their own unique paradigms of standard usage, and it has been most interesting studying the varieties of verbal creativity possible within these different texts.

..."to properly understand our own language is to properly understand ourselves"...


And take the way that English literacy practices vary across different social and cultural contexts, with different social groups manipulating the language in ways that differentiate them from others, to establish their unique position in society.  It is fascinating to see how teenagers of every generation invariably create new vocabulary, new grammatical structures, and new pronunciations to effectively mark their social group as exclusive and inimitable. And consider the judgments that we make about each other purely on the basis of our presentation of language.  Whether our accent is pure Received Pronunciation, or an interesting dialect, it will cause someone, somewhere to develop an opinion about us.

These wide-ranging, thought-provoking, endlessly fascinating topics have been a powerful inspiration to me, and have caused me to make a U-turn on my original intention to continue with Modern Language studies, since I now would very much like to specialise in Applied Linguistics. I still have a true fascination for the detail and structure, the musicality and rhythm of foreign languages, yet have come to appreciate those elements even more keenly in my own native tongue.

Language, whether used in talking or writing, is a central part of us all; it is through this medium that we conduct our relationships, express our thoughts, construct our identities and effectively live our lives. The English language has proved to be an important and immensely inspiring area of study, because it teaches us of our history, our heritage, and our culture. And, as I now realise, to properly understand our own language is to properly understand ourselves.