Investigating language: project ideas

This page includes a numbers of ideas and suggestions for your students' independent language study. We have categorised them by 'language levels', but only for navigation purposes - don't let the categories limit your students' creativity! 

Meaning

  • Select 50 or so of the new words recently included in the Oxford English Dictionary (from here). For each word, analyse it's formation process (borrowing, back formation, clipping, analogy, acronym, abbreviation, blending, etc). Does a pattern emerge? If so, what might that tell you about new English words?
  • Explore the use of metaphor in a text type/genre of your choice. You could apply the framework for extracting metaphor data outlined here. An Excel spreadsheet works well for this kind of work. Once you have gathered your data, compile a list of source and target domains and analyse the patterns.

Spoken discourse

  • Interview (with permission) two different speakers/sets of speakers from two different social groups, about a topical issue. Transcribe all of (or a selection) of the interviews, and look out for interesting linguistic patterns. For example, you might focus on one particular linguistic variable, such as th-fronting, use of dialect features or discourse markers.
  • Record (with permission) discourse from education - e.g. a secondary school classroom, a one-to-one tuition session, a lecture, a nursery school, etc. Focus on the language of the teacher/instructor. Transcribe the recording. How do they use language to do different things - such as: introduce topics and ideas; control student behaviour; explain and describe aspects of the lesson, etc.
  • Look at how speakers use gesture (body language) in communication. Focus on a particular person, who you can find plenty of video data from. You'll then need to transcribe a good amount of data, and include information about gestures too. For example, what kind of hand movements do they make with spatial metaphors? Do they raise their hands when saying things such as prices are going up? Or do they open their body when using metaphors such as I'm open to new ideas, for example?

Grammar

  • Investigate grammatical 'mangling' in adverts (see here for an interesting introduction). You could also investigate some of the attitudes towards this, either by conducting interviews yourself, or exploring some of the comments that follow online articles about these.
  • Investigate the frequency of a particular grammatical construction (e.g. the past tense; the passive; adverb phrases) across different genres of writing (e.g. news articles; recipes; tweets etc.). Does the frequency of the construction tell you anything interesting about the nature of the genre? You could also make use of corpora in your study, such as the BYU corpora, available here.
  • Investigate the grammatical style of a particular author. You might take a small sample of their writing and conduct a close grammatical analysis of each clause. Is their writing characterised by a certain type of construction? What claims can you make about their grammatical choices and the overall style or 'feel' of the writing?

Language change

  • Find a good number of opinion articles about language change (for example see here and here). What kind of attitude towards language is present in each? Descriptive, or prescriptive - or somewhere in the middle? You could place them along a scale to help you do this. Once done, choose a selection of articles towards one particular end of the scale, and then do a close analysis of them. How do they talk about language, and language change?
  • Investigate attitudes towards a specific grammatical or phonological variable, that is seen as 'recent' addition to English (e.g. th-fronting; gender-neutral pronouns; various Americanisms; etc.).

Style

  • Choose a particular genre of writing, trying to be as specific as possible (e.g. GCSE science textbooks; Amazon reviews for electronic products; flat-pack furniture instructions). You'll need to collect a good amount of data, ideally electronically. Investigate the language of the genre, focusing on a particular grammatical construction or discourse structure. 
  • Choose an author and collect a sample of their writing. Anything on Project Gutenberg is a particularly good choice, because the texts are already electronically available. Investigate a particular aspect of their writing, such as the opening 100 words, or descriptions of physical places. How is language used to construct a fictional world?

Language debates and discourses

  • Linguistic imperalism is a term coined by Robert Phillipson, to try and understand the way that certain world languages (such as English) come to dominate, often at the expense of local languages and cultures. Phillipson's idea was that smaller languages become increasingly marginalised as education in global languages becomes bigger. Evaluate this idea in reference to the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) industry. Two good starting points are an article by the British Council on this issue (here) and two Guardian articles: one by Phillipson himself, here, and a later one, here. You can also see a video of Phillipson talking about linguistic imperalism here
  • Look at how grammar is talked about, framed and represented on The Newbolt Report, a 1921 paper which looked at the teaching of English in UK schools. You can see the whole report here, which might lead onto an interesting exploration of the purposes of teaching grammar in schools.
  • Conduct a case study of a word (or phrase, or group of words) which has caused controversy. For example, the word gammon has recently been widely used (particularly on social media) as a (derogatory) metaphor to describe white, middle-aged males who typically hold conservative political views (see here for a useful introduction to its usage and etymology).

Hundreds of other project ideas can be found in: Wray, A. & Bloomer, A. (2012). Projects in Linguistics and Language Studies. London: Routledge.


Full Preview

This is a full preview of this page. You can view a couple of pages a day like this without registering. But if you wish to use it in your classroom, please register your details on Englicious (for free) and then log in!

Englicious (C) Survey of English Usage, UCL, 2012-18 | Supported by the AHRC and EPSRC. | Privacy | Cookies