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

Author: Vladislav Mackevic


Vladislav Mackevic, a 2nd year International Relations and English student at Aston University, was a runner up in the Subject Centre's undergraduate student essay competition 2009.

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Vladislav Mackevic

Language is power

These three words do not merely summarise my experience of studying English at university – they are a slogan of my life. One does not need any special analytical skills to discover this fact: just look at police officers and how much a lengthy trial depends on one hour in an interview room; how weighty evidence is formed from miniscule pieces of linguistic data extracted during that hour. What is more, linguistic choices one makes when presenting information can have immense impact on the receiver: have you ever thought how come two pages about skills and experience can land one person a job while others with the same skills and experience get rejected? Why the same story covered by two different newspapers creates totally different attitudes among their readers? And is it not amazing how the use of appropriate language can save face in an awkward situation! Language is one of the most powerful weapons on earth: it shapes the society, it can heal and hurt, it can help create and solve conflicts!  

The craftsman’s skill is measured by how well he wields his tools. Language is a tool, and to discover its full potential, one must not only learn to use it, but also know it inside-out. One must be acquainted with its subtle and complex structure, its nuances, thin and semi-transparent as a cobweb – all of it in order not to take language for granted, to use it and recognise it used in all its contexts and for all purposes. Every single skilled job involves using language, and the way one uses it determines the success of that person in the job: from teachers and PR officers to cleaning supervisors, people persuade, make impact and exercise power through language.

However, in my view, all of the above pales before the most exciting strand of language studies – forensic linguistics. Educated scholars, whose expertise in practice hitherto was confined to determining social consequences of language use and writing textbooks for learners of language, now can help solve crimes. Forensic linguistics, or language analysis and use in criminal context, has been the most inspiring subject that I have ever studied. Just imagine this scenario: a child has been kidnapped, and several typed ransom notes were sent to the parents. Eventually the culprit has been found, but these few notes, totalling five hundred words, are the only evidence. The court hires a linguist who, comparing the ransom notes with texts the suspect has previously written, is able to prove that the suspect is guilty. The famous Unabomber case was solved precisely this way: Theodore Kaczynski was jailed for life thanks to an expert linguist who discovered Kaczynski was the author of a scandalous Unabomber manifesto.

"Every single skilled job involves using language".


The discovery of idiolect – the uniqueness of the way one uses language – was the beginning of an immense field for academics. It is incredible: the way every person speaks and writes is unique. If you type any longer sentence of this essay into Google, you will get no same sentences. Newspapers proclaim: “Minding their language will not help criminals in the future”. Analysing text messages, short ransom notes, threatening messages and suicide letters can reveal the sinister truth between the lines. 

Since this discovery was made, numerous theories about authorship attribution have been created; their reliability has been questioned by scholars and put to the test – ceaselessly, rigorously and meticulously; software that scans academic essays in search for plagiarism has been developed; forensic linguists have been called to court as expert witnesses; crimes have been solved and innocent people rehabilitated due to analysis of several short texts.  One of the most prominent examples is Derek Bentley: a youth hanged for murder in 1953, was proven innocent 45 years later thanks to Professor Malcolm Coulthard, who conducted linguistic analysis of Bentley’s statement. Another distinguished linguist, Dr Tim Grant had helped to sentence a murderer by comparing the language of text messages, sent from the suspect’s own phone, to ones he was sending from his victim’s phone.

When choosing my university, I did extensive research and realised that the degree in English that Aston offers differs greatly from one taught at other universities. Rather than focusing on literature or construction of words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, Aston puts enormous emphasis on social applications of English. Modules like Language of the News Media, TESOL, Discourse Analysis for Business, and, most importantly, Language of the Law and Language as Evidence, make my degree fascinating, challenging and exceptional. My degree has already equipped me with skills that I will be able to use in my future career: I have gained language awareness in numerous contexts and have already been able to apply my skills in practice, currently working as a journalist for the university newspaper and contributing to the BePolitics blog. What is more, I have amplified my expertise of making impact through language so greatly that every job application that I have sent since the end of the first year landed me a job or an interview.

"My degree has already equipped me with skills that I will be able to use in my future career".


Yet, the most amazing surprise awaited me at the end of the second term: I learnt that Professor Malcolm Coulthard was working at Aston and there is a new Centre for Forensic Linguistics being opened in my school of study. At that moment, I knew exactly which area of linguistics will form the base for my dissertation, and my enthusiasm about the subject has been growing with increasing pace.

Language is power. If you know how to use it, it can open many doors; failing to recognise its power may mean defeat. The mottled field of linguistics stretches further than even the most insightful eye can see. Forensic linguistics is merely one small patch on this field, and no area has been fully explored yet: new topics for research will emerge from this patch, and from scores of others, as long as language exists, for, as the potter’s hands mould clay, language shapes our society.