Five tips for your first linguistics class*

So it’s getting to be the time of year when colleges start back up again (at least here in the US). And with that comes a whole batch of eager students taking their first linguistics class. If that’s you: congratulations! You’re going to embark on an academic journey that will forever change the way you look at language. But I’m sure you also have a lot of questions about what to expect and how to do well in a linguistics class. Well you’re in luck, because today I’m going to share my top five ten tips for doing well in an introductory linguistics class. These are drawn from my experiences both as a teacher and a student and I hope they help you as you begin to become a linguist.

  1. Expect rigour! Just to clarify here, by “rigour” I don’t mean difficulty. Rather, I mean rigour in the mathematical sense. Linguistics is a very exact discipline and part of learning how to be a linguist is learning how to carefully, precisely solve problems. There will be right and wrong answers. You may be expected to explain how you solved a problem. If you come from a background with a lot of mathematics or formal logic  linguistics problems will feel probably very familiar to you. (I have a friend, now a math PhD candidate, who really enjoyed phonology because, in his words, “It’s applied set theory!”.) A lot of students who have an interest in language from literary or foreign-language studies are often surprised by this aspect of linguistics courses, however.
  2. Be prepared for a little bit of memorization. Every introductory linguistics course I’m familiar with covers the International Phonetic Alphabet pretty early on in the class and students are expected to memorize at least part of it. I’m a fan of this, since knowing IPA is a pretty handy life skill and it allows you solve phonology problems much more quickly. But it can be a nasty surprise if you’re not ready for it and don’t set aside enough time for studying.
  3. Get ready to unlearn. You speak at least one language. You’re in college. You know a fair amount about how language works… right? Well, yes, but not in the way you think. You’re going to have to unlearn a lot of things you’ve been taught about language, especially about what you should do/write/say and a lot of the “grammar rules” you’ve been taught. Again, this can be frustrating for a lot of students. You’ve spent a long time laboriously learning about language, you’ve obviously developed enough of an interest in language to take a linguistics course, and in the first week of class we basically tell you you’ve been lied to! This can actually be a blessing in disguise, though. It lets the whole class start out at a similar place and you’ll be learning the basics of morphology and syntax right along with you classmates. Study group, anyone?
  4. Be patient with yourself. Introductory linguistics classes are always a bit of a whirlwind. You’re swept from subdispline to subdisipline and just as soon as you’re feeling comfortable with morphology suddenly it’s on to syntax with no chance to catch your breath. It’s just the nature of a introductory survey course, though; it’s a tasting menu, not a a la carte. Remember what catches your interest and pursue it in more coursework or readings later, don’t try to do it all just as you’re encountering ideas and methods for the first time.
  5. Ask for help. Don’t be afraid of asking for extra help! Go to office hours if you don’t understand something. Form a study group. (It’s even better if you can get people from different academic backgrounds.) There are also lots of great resources online. This blog post has a lot of great resources and this post gives a lot of great, really concrete advice about doing assignments in  intro linguistics courses.

But it’s also really important just to relax and have fun. You’ll cover a lot of material, granted, but that also means you’ll learn a lot! And introductory courses tend to be a great place to learn lots of fun facts and find the answers to language mysteries that have been niggling at you. Welcome to linguistics; I think you’re going to like it.

*Don’t worry, we’ll be getting back to the Great Ideas in Linguistics series after these short messages.

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