Student Blog

Linguistics Subject Profile

Are you curious about our most crucially human attribute, language? Is a subject that combines the arts and sciences appealing? If you’ve found yourself asking ‘why?’ or ‘how?’ in relation to language, then Linguistics is for you. Current third year and JCR Access Officer Fergus outline his experience of the course below. You can find more information on the linguistics course page on the main university website. 

The current entry requirements are  A*AA at A-Level or equivalent. There are no specific subject requirements, but subjects which are useful preparation include English (Literature or Language), Mathematics, an arts/science mix, and/or a language (ancient or modern).

Hi, I’m Fergus and I’m just starting my third year studying Linguistics at Downing.

When I tell people I study Linguistics, I often get the follow-up question “oh, so what languages?” In fact, linguistics is the study of language in general: its structure, development and how it’s used, learnt and processed. Despite being quite a niche subject, it’s surprisingly diverse: you can go from studying how speech sounds are produced in the throat one minute to commenting on the language in Old English texts the next.

The first year is a fast grounding in the basic aspects of linguistics, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, sociolinguistics, language acquisition, psycholinguistics, historical linguistics and the history of English (don’t worry if you don’t know what half those words mean – you will do by the end of the first year!). In your second and third years, you get to choose almost all of what you study, including six taught modules from a choice of about twenty, an independently-written dissertation, and a final general (and quite mysterious) ‘linguistic theory’ paper. This gives you both a solid grounding and then freedom to pick specific aspects that appeal to you, so there’s no chance of being left studying something something you find dull for three years.

One useful thing to note about the course at Cambridge is that there’s not much focus on sociolinguistics (the relation of language to society, culture, gender, class etc.), which is quite different to a couple of other universities. However, apart from that Cambridge’s course is very broad and there are experts in a wide range of fields within linguistics, which is quite impressive for such a small department!

Linguistics shares its library with the languages faculty, based on the Sidgwick Site

Like a lot of other arts and social sciences subjects, the workload can really be what you make it. On average, you’ll have two to three pieces of work to do each week. These could be essays, problem sheets (like a phonetic transcription task), or occasionally just reading. After each piece of work, there’ll be a supervision with an academic or postgraduate student who specialises in that area. Exams are one-third essays and two-thirds non-essay in the first year, though by second and third year the vast majority of the exams consists of essays (but you’ll be much more used to writing Cambridge essays by that point!).

There is one lecture a week, every week, for almost all modules. Then in second and third year (depending on the options they’ve chosen) you’ll often do practicals where you might look at some linguistic data; these tend to be less frequent than lectures though this massively depends on the subject matter and lecturer. For historical linguistics for example, you might look over a sound change in a particular language. For those who pick the phonetics paper, there are also phonetics practicals in which you practise making various weird and wonderful speech sounds (seriously), and labs for measuring sounds on computers. This means it’s very common to not have a five-day week so self-motivation is pretty important.

Downing’s library has enough material to pretty much cover you for your first year, but after that you’ll tend to need to make your way to the Modern and Medieval Languages (MML) library, or the main (and huge!) University Library – or just find sources and studies online.

One of the things that I’ve found nicest about Linguistics at Cambridge is the size of the year, which is usually around 30 people across the university. so I knew almost everyone on my course by the first term. It’s really nice to be able to have both a friendly community at college and a group of people doing your subject: though I’m the only linguist in my year at Downing, I’ve made a lot of good friends at other colleges this way.

The Director of Studies for Linguistics at Downing is Prof Adam Ledgeway, who is also chair of the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages (which contains Linguistics) and always there to give (very helpful) advice about my course, module choices and life after university. Not all colleges have a Director of Studies who is also a fellow of the college, which is a real benefit of studying Linguistics at Downing in particular. Meanwhile, Professor Ian Roberts is also a fellow in Linguistics at the college. This means Downing probably has the strongest set of academics in Linguistics of any college – though do remember that all teaching is done centrally, so your college is much less of a place of work than it is for many other subjects (for example, I haven’t had any teaching in Downing throughout my degree).

Lensfield Road Houses. which students can live in in their second and third year

As for why I chose Downing in particular, I visited on an open day and just liked the atmosphere of it when I walked in for the first time. It’s got a lot of green space and openness but is also central within Cambridge, so you feel like you’re living in your own oasis in the middle of the city. I also liked the way I had the option to live in a house which backs onto the main College site (which I now do!) rather than having to stay either inside college or in a house on the other side of Cambridge.

In short: I’ve really enjoyed my two years studying linguistics here – it’s been varied, interesting and I’ve met a really nice bunch of people.



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Fergus O'Dowd

Hi, I’m Fergus! I’m in my third year here at Downing studying Linguistics. I studied French, Maths, History and Geography at A-level at my sixth form college in Winchester. In my free time I’m a fan of rock climbing and I sub-edit for the student newspaper Varsity.