What is linguistics? A student’s view

What is linguistics?

Mark Darbyshire, who has recently graduated from his undergraduate linguistics degree at UC and will start his honours programme next year, blogs his thoughts on the discipline.


Language was my dream subject, but I decided to study Computer Engineering instead. I thought the career prospects would be better. But Computer Engineering wasn’t for me, and my studies inevitably drifted towards Linguistics. And I’m so happy they did!

Linguistics ties together everything I enjoyed studying at high school.

Linguistics isn’t about learning languages. It’s about studying how they work and how they change. It’s about forgetting our opinions and studying language objectively. Linguistics is scientific, and it unearths fascinating patterns at every level.

Linguistics ties in with everything to do with humans and the world around them: history, psychology, sociology, biology, physics and more. It uses methodology from all sorts of different disciplines. That means there is bound to be an area of Linguistics that will interest you!

The courses at UC have exposed me to all sorts of topics. I’ve looked into the origins of European and Polynesian languages, explored the history of New Zealand English, and unravelled exciting patterns in lots of different languages. I’ve learnt about the properties of the sounds we make when we speak, and learnt how to model sentences and meanings using structures and logic that feel a lot like Computer Science or Maths.

UC is the hub of all sorts of exciting research, pushing the boundaries of what we know and finding new ways to put our knowledge to good use. This means that me and my classmates have had jobs in all sorts of projects.

Recently I worked with a computer system where participants wear a headset that makes them hear something different to what they actually said. This is used to change how they say their vowels. This might one day be able to help people who have language difficulties due to brain injury. I was working with Chinese people to see whether this system can be used to help language learners get a New Zealand accent. I found it very interesting, because Linguistics enables me to understand why people with different accents sound the way they do. I was uniquely placed to observe the peculiarities of the dialects that Chinese people develop when they come to New Zealand.

Now I’m starting work on an exciting project to do with a handful of dialects in Northern England. It’s a wonderful opportunity to be involved in ground-breaking research of some English varieties that I’m particularly interested in. We’ll be getting new insights into how attitudes affect the spread of language change.

UC has given me the opportunity to see the concepts I’ve studied in action, and to get paid for it. I’ve also been able to put my other skills (like computer programming) to good use. I know people from lots of different backgrounds in the Linguistics programme, but they’ve all been able to benefit from the unique perspective that their skills give them.

Don’t be afraid to give Linguistics a shot. It’s such a diverse area of study that you’ll be able to find the perfect niche and make it your own. University is a much more fulfilling experience when you find a course of study that balances your talents and stimulates your mind.

Don’t just jump on the conveyor belt to get a run-of-the-mill degree. Find a way to make it your own so that you can really excel.

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About uclinguistics

Welcome to the blog of the Linguistics programme at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
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