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Counsel for the course

Linguistics isn't the average sixth-former's idea of a sexy degree. Amanda Maitland and Joanne Kenworthy explain how they are trying to generate excitement for their subject.

Pupils planning to go into higher or further education face three major decisions at secondary school - choosing their GCSEs, A-levels and university course. What sources of information do they use to help them make this last choice - open days, prospectuses, course leaflets, Internet sites, interviews?

As university lecturers in linguistics - unfamiliar to many pupils or their teachers - we have often wondered how well our subject is served by these methods. So we decided to do something different - "taster lectures".

We visit students at the end of their first A-level year, just as they are starting to think about university. Personal contact is an important part of any visit; students can see university teaching styles and meet someone approachable. Even if they don't alter the course they've decided on, they may be encouraged to take some of the combination courses available.

The sessions follow the same format. We describe the various fields of language and linguistics before embarking on two taster lectures. The first, relating to educational linguistics, is on "What makes a good book for children?" We chose this because there seems a natural link with literature - which many of the students are studying - and everyone has an opinion on what makes a good book.

Our second taster is on forensic linguistics. We show a video clip of a trial, then discuss it. We finish by talking to pupils and giving out leaflets.

To monitor this initiative, we designed a pre-session questionnaire, followed by another at the end of the session to allow us to spot any changes in ideas. Before the session we ask pupils to name other courses "where you think language andor linguistics might be studied". The most frequently mentioned subject is sociology. We are surprised that few list media studies. The study of language as used in the media (print and broadcasting) is a fascinating area, and in today's age of global communication people need to understand how media texts are constructed.

Education is never listed - a surprise. It is not an A-level option, but then teaching and journalism are by far the most frequently mentioned "careers you might go into after studying languagelinguistics". Many pupils seem to see an understanding of language and language use as a "life skill". When asked what they think would be "useful" about studying languagelinguistics they give comments such as:

* "you become more equipped for dealing with people";

* "it can be used in real life";

* "you will be able to understand others' thoughts and ideas";

* "you understand why people use the language they do".

In this way we get some indication of what our audience already thinks abot our subjects. Do our tasters make a difference? Here are some of the responses from our questionnaire.

In answer to "Have you learned anything new about language and linguistics from the presentations?" one student said: "There are many types of linguistics courses which specialise in specific areas and they all can be useful in studying our society, past and present."

Other replies included: "There is more to language than just writing"and "More to it than I thought. Analysing the courtroom scene showed me how body language and form comes into it, as well as actual words."

Without exception, the pupils believe that studying a language andor linguistics course would be interesting. When asked about the most appropriate time for our tasters, most say "end of our first year in the sixth form", but others say the beginning of the first year or the beginning of the second year. We may need to think about timing. All of this is positive and rewarding. Getting out to sixth-form colleges and schools to give a taste of what it is like to study a particular university course is valuable, to them and us.

But did we give them a taste, or just pass the dish in front of their noses? For us, normal teaching happens with students we know well. They've made their choice, they're committed to it (you hope), each session is a small part of a whole programme and builds on what we've done before. Our taster sessions are one-offs. Is it worth it? One head of English told us:

"The students gained a lot from itI the discussions you led on the videoed court case and what makes a good children's book raised issues that we have taken back to college and will continue to discuss." It was worth it.

Amanda Maitland is a lecturer in education and community studies at the University of East London. Joanne Kenworthy is a senior lecturer in language and linguistics at the same university. Email:;


This branch of the science of linguistics is concerned with the relationship between language and the law.

Forensic linguists use their knowledge of the way language works and their skills in phonetics, stylistics, discourse analysis, semantics and grammar to analyse the linguistic evidence presented in court (this includes oral and written submissions - written confessions, tape-recordings of suspects, for example). They also research legal issues and problems.

Forensic linguists study the readability of all kinds of legal documents, the use of language in the courtroom, the problems of courtroom interpretation and translation and the comprehensibility of police cautions to suspects.

They might be called upon in cases of authorship attribution, for spoken and written language, or to carry out research into procedures used for interviews with children in the legal system.

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