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Applying for a Subject You’ve Never Studied Before

By Lucy Evans @lucy_chip

The prospect of applying to university was very overwhelming for me; I felt confused and uncertain about what I wanted to do. Unlike many of my friends, there was no one stand-out subject I wanted to take forward alone. I loved science and took Chemistry and Biology for A-Level, but I didn’t love it enough to take it further. Spanish, my third A-Level, was an easy favourite, but I didn’t know whether studying it alone would satisfy me. I also hated the idea of finishing up with science for good. 


So, I took to the internet to see my options.


Spanish sole (i.e., just one language) was the first one. It’s a great option, but not for me. I assumed the courses would be very literature heavy wherever I applied, and with such a strong background in science I didn’t think that would suit me (I have since been proven wrong but more on that later!).


The second option was to take an ab initio language: like Portuguese, Italian, German or Russian. I thought a lot about this option, but it didn’t tickle the science side of my brain.


Then I came across Linguistics.


On the Oxford University webpage, linguistics is described as “the study of language itself” in which students “will be introduced to the analysis of the nature and structure of human language.” The degree explores topics such “how words and sentences are formed, how we make and hear sounds, how languages change and vary and how language is organised in the brain.”


This instantly appealed to me – a marriage between the two things I enjoyed so much: language and science. Languages had always been my favourite subjects at school, and not just for the languages themselves, but for the differences in cultures, perspectives and attitudes embodied by their speakers. Those nitty gritty parts of learning interesting constructions, or those phrases which just don’t have the same translation in English, always struck something in me. Science had imbued me with an inquisitive nature, and a desire to know how and why things worked the way they did; applied to languages, this meant I would often find myself keen to explore the mechanisms behind them. How could native Spanish speakers understand Italian or French, but not be able to speak to them? How can I make judgements on a speaker’s gender, class, or sexuality from their accent alone? How do we learn language? And why can no other species do it like we can? It seemed, then, that I had found the perfect subject for me.


With Modern Languages and Linguistics chosen, I now had to sum up whether or not I would be brave enough to take the risk. I had never even heard about linguistics until I started looking around different degree courses – should this really be the subject I dedicate four years of my life, perhaps more, to? Did I know enough about languages to specialise in the study of them? Having only known about it for a few months, would everyone else be ahead of me?


Well, I am now coming to the end of my fourth year of my Spanish and Linguistics degree here at Oxford, and I could not be more grateful that I took the risk. It was a very scary one, true, but for me, it fell into place. Over the past four years I have studied subjects I didn’t even know existed. We’ve looked at how children acquire language, how humans produce, and process sounds, how language is stored in the brain. We’ve studied dialects, grammar, theory, syntax. Asked questions like; What is meaning?; Do women speak the same as men?; Should the Queen speak the Queen’s English?* No one week is the same, and I truly thank sixth form Lucy for jumping feet first into something new.


My advice to anyone taking a similar risk, whether it be to study Linguistics, Archaeology and Anthropology, Biochemistry, or any other new subject, would be to read, watch videos, and talk to anyone you can get your hands on. You do not have to know everything about the subject before starting, or even applying – that’s the point of doing a degree! Above all, you know yourself better than anyone else, and if you think it's something that will interest you – go for it. I’m very glad I did and, if this is something you’re thinking about, I hope you too will look back in a few years and feel the same as I do.

*A genuine 2nd year essay title!


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