What you will study

The aim of this course is to give you a broad understanding of human language, with a focus on English. Human language in all its diversity should be one of the most interesting subjects of study – it is something we all share and one of the things that makes us human.

In this year-long course, we will study language and English linguistics in particular. We will ask ‘Why do we talk?’ and ‘How do we talk?’ and look at language and the brain.

We will also study the origin of language, asking why there are thousands of languages in the world rather than just one. You will have the chance to explore languages in Africa, Europe, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.

We will also compare how Japanese and English-speaking children learn language, explore English accents and dialects (national, regional and social varieties), and find out how English is related to languages such as German, Russian and Hindi.

To see our class week by week, look below:

First semester

Week 1 Introductory class

In this first class, we will learn what happens in your brain each time you speak or hear language. We will also look at the basic design features of human language.

  • Reading (Ohio Language Files)
    • File 1.1 Introducing the study of language
    • File 1.2 What you know when you know a language
    • File 1.4 Design features of language
  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of Language)
    • Part 1.2 The equality of languages
    • Part 1.4 The functions of language
    • Part 1.5 Language and thought


Week 2 What is language?

  • Reading (Ohio Language Files)
    • File 14.1 Communication and language
    • File 14.2 Animal communication in the wild
    • File 14. 3 Can animals be taught language?


Week 3 Why and how do we talk?

Today we will watch and discuss a BBC documentary: Why Do We Talk?


Week 4 Follow-up

Today we will look further at why and how we talk


Week 5 Language and the brain

Which side of YOUR brain? Try the dichotic listening experiment


Week 6 Assignment

  • Reading (Ohio Language Files)
    • File 9.1 Language and the brain


Week 7 Aphasia

Today we will study aphasia – the loss or partial loss of language as a result of damage to the brain. We will learn about Sarah, a young English student aged 18 who lost her language after a stroke.

  • Reading (Ohio Language Files)
    • File 9.2 Aphasia


Week 8 The origin of language

Today we will watch and discuss a BBC documentary: Origins of Us: Brains. We are special because of our extraordinary brain, which is more than four times bigger than our early ancestors. In this BBC documentary, we will explore how and why we, homo sapiens, developed a large brain and language.


Week 9 Follow-up

Today we will study more about the origin of language.


Week 10 How children learn language

  • Reading (Ohio Language Files)
    • File 8.1 Theories of language acquisition


Week 11 English and Japanese children

  • Reading (Ohio Language Files)
    • File 8.2 First-language acquisition: The acquisition of speech sounds and phonology


Week 12 Assignment

  • Reading (Ohio Language Files)
    • File 8.3: First-language acquisition: The acquisition of morphology, syntax and word meaning


Week 13 Follow-up

  • Reading (Ohio Language Files)
    • File 8.4 How adults talk to young children


Week 14 The critical period

Today we will watch and discuss a documentary about Genie and Victor, two children who were not exposed to language when they were young.


Week 15 End-of-term class

Second semester

Week 1 Language variation and change

In today’s class, we will try to answer the questions: why do languages vary and change, and why are there 7000 languages in the world rather than one?

  • Reading (Ohio Language Files)
    • File 13.1 Introducing language change
    • File 13.2 Language relatedness


Week 2 Languages of the world

In this class, we will look at the major language families of the world. You will draw and label a map of the main language families and learn some of their typical features.



Week 3 Student presentations on languages of the world

Today each of you will prepare a presentation on a different language from around the world.

You should talk for ten minutes

We will then have five minutes of questions


Week 4 Indo-European languages

English is related to languages like Welsh, Spanish, Russian, Greek, Persian and Hindi – they are called Indo-European languages. We will learn about the history of the Indo-European languages in today’s class. We will also study how languages can change.

  • Reading (Ohio Language Files)
    • File 13.3 Sound change
    • File 13.4 Morphological change
    • File 13.5 Syntactic change

Listen to some Indo-European languages


Watch Welsh TV


Watch Russian TV


Watch Greek TV


Watch TV in Hindi


Week 5 Germanic languages

English is closely related to languages like German, Dutch, Swedish and Norwegian. We will learn about the history of these languages and how they are related today.

  • Reading (Ohio Language Files)
    • File 13.6 Semantic change
    • File 13.7 Internal reconstruction adn comparative reconstruction

Listen to some Germanic languages


Watch Frisian TV


Watch Swedish TV


Watch Dutch TV


Watch German TV


Week 6 Class presentations

Today you will do your presentation on your chosen language.


Week 7 How languages are born and die

Today we will watch The Linguists, a film about documenting languages before the last speaker dies.


Week 8 Follow-up

Today we will learn about pidgins and creoles.

  • Reading (Ohio Language Files)
    • File 12.3 Pidgins
    • File 12. 4 Creoles

Try the ‘Alien Language Experiment’: the week we will try an experiment to show how humans make language regular. We will also study grammaticalisation – the development of grammatical constructions – as in English I am going to meaning future.


Week 9 English accents and dialects

Today we will begin studying English accents and dialects. You will learn that there are many more varieties of English than the standard British or American English you learn at school.

We will listen to three dialects of English, looking at differences in accent, vocabulary and grammar. Below are two poems to get you started. What variety of English are they? Please tell me in class.

The wuid-reek mells wi the winter haar
And aa the birds are gane;
They’re burnan the leaves, the treen are bare,
December rules a dour domain
The wuid-reek draws a memorie
Frae some far neuk in the brain
When I was a loun and hadna loed
And never kent the world’s bane
Och, burn the leaves and burn the branch
And burn the holly treen!
O winter, burn the hairt I want –
And syne burn mine again!


Week 10 Assignment

What can we learn from a dialect map?

Today you will do a presentation about a variety of English. Go to the British Library website:

Identify the accents in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet: This British comedy features characters from many different regions of Britain. Part of the comedy comes from hearing all their accents. We will watch a short excerpt from the comedy. Can you identify the accents of the different characters? What features of their accent can you notice?


Week 11 English around the world

Where is English spoken in the world? Why does English sound different around the world? What are the main differences between British, American and Australian/New Zealand English? How did these differences come about?

What are the origins of American English? Today we will study New York English and the English of the South.


Week 12 Follow-up

We will continue looking at varieties of English today, including Australian English and African American and Caribbean English.

When you listen to popular music in English, you are often listening to African-American English or features of African-American English. What are the features of African American English? We will learn about the history of slavery and the origin of this variety of English. We will also watch a short documentary clip about Gullah.


Week 13 English language in society

In today’s class and the follow-up class, we will study social variation in English. What are high status and low status varieties of English? Why are they high or low status? Is it because the English is good or bad, or because of some other reason? What do you think?

Today we will look at English in New York: William Labov’s study. We will also talk about posh or common – socioeconomic variation in English in England.

We will also look at how changes can spread in language.

Questions for class

  1. Why does David Beckham change his Cockney accent and grammar to standard English when he appears on TV?
  2. And why does the British prime minister drop his h’s and use a glottal stop for /t/ when he appears on TV?


File 10.4 Factors influencing variation: social factors


Week 14 The language of men and women

Talkin’ and talking: the speech of men and women in Norwich, England

Japanese and gender: the speech of men and women in Japan


Week 15 End-of-term class