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What’s the use of studying language?

Each year we invite IB alumni to share their experiences, interests and advice with our global community in the graduate voices series. We welcome Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Viola Wiegand, who shares her expertise on careers in linguistics. Viola completed her IB program at Felix-Klein-Gymnasium in Göttingen, Germany.

Woman holding an open book with two hands. Light coming out of the book as a concept of learning, education, knowledge and religion

By Viola Wiegand

Language is an important part of our lives and the society we live in. The academic subject that studies the principles of language is linguistics; it is both a relatively young and little known discipline. So, you can imagine that many linguists, including myself, were quite intrigued about the prominent role of a linguist in the 2016 movie Arrival. In this science fiction movie, aliens arrive on Earth and they do not understand human language. National and military leaders are not sure whether the aliens have come in peace or for confrontation, so they recruit a linguist and a physicist for help in studying the aliens’ background and intentions. The linguist, Dr Banks, observes the aliens and manages to interact with them, eventually, thanks to her background in linguistic fieldwork for documenting the grammar of rare and endangered languages. (The Babel—The Language Magazine published a fascinating interview with one of the linguistic advisors for the film, Dr Jessica Coon, that they recently made freely available!)

Real-life linguistics

“Language is an important part of our lives and the society we live in.”

Even though real-life linguistics doesn’t get quite as dramatic as portrayed in the movie (with aliens and all) it does make valuable contributions. The field is also very diverse, because language is important for so many different aspects of society. In the example of Dr Banks from Arrival, we have already seen that linguistic research can “encrypt” the structures of little known languages. Similarly, forensic linguists analyse statements, text messages and other linguistic evidence for criminal investigations. The language of the media is another important focus of linguistic research. How are important social issues and particular groups of people discussed in the media? How does this change over time? Is there a way to identify “fake news” on social media platforms? These are just some of the questions that linguists investigate.

And perhaps the most obvious area for which linguistic research is relevant is education. Many linguists study the stages of language learning: either in small children learning their first language (with some innovative methods, as documented in this by now somewhat old yet fascinating video from Johns Hopkins university) or of course in older children and adults learning additional languages. Based on their understanding of the learning processes, linguists can help to improve teaching methods.

Integrating linguistics and literary studies

Linguistic aspects aren’t only useful for learning a foreign language in terms of its grammar and vocabulary. If you are taking a language and literature class, you will already have hands-on experiences of using linguistic frameworks for analysing both non-fiction and fiction. Depending on the university, literary studies may be completely separate from the linguistics departments. In this post I can’t go into the detail of literary studies as a discipline of itself—if you’re interested in that, have a look at the recent book Literature: Why it Matters by Robert Eaglestone. (The Linguistics book by Geoffrey Pullum from the same “Why it mattersseries may also be of interest!). And like linguistics, literary studies are not restricted to an educational focus.

Nevertheless, there is an increasing body of research that combines linguistic and literary studies. And often educational resources are an important output of this work (a great example is the book The Language of Literature—An Introduction to Stylistics, aimed at students who are about to move from school to university). The research project that I currently work for at the University of Birmingham, UK, takes such an integrated approach to language and literature: we have developed the web app “CLiC” that allows you to study the language of over 140 books. CLiC works a bit like a search engine—you can search for words and phrases and look for frequent patterns in individual texts or across a large set of novels. You can try it out yourself at (for an introduction see our Activity Book!). And if you’re in the UK, you may be interested in the Digital Reading Competition that our project is running for students at Key Stages 2–5, so covering the IB MYP and DP stages! The competition challenges you to come up with your own little research topics, written up as step-by-step instructions for your “Digital Reading Activity”. The closing date is 7 June 2019. For an overview, check out the competition video.

IB student to linguist

“If you really enjoy a language subject at high school, don’t be put off studying this subject at university because the career options may not seem as obvious.”

Towards the end of my IB time, as I was contemplating my choice of university subjects, I thought that becoming a teacher would be the default career option for people studying English degrees at university. If you’re considering becoming a teacher that is great—you will know from your own experience what an immense impact a good teacher has on young people’s lives. But hopefully you can see by now that this isn’t your only option. Of course, I’m not suggesting that everyone should study linguistics. I’m just keen to tell you that if you really enjoy a language subject at high school, don’t be put off studying this subject at university because the career options may not seem as obvious as for perhaps more tangible subjects like medicine, law or engineering.

In a way my IB time seems quite far away: I graduated from the IB Diploma Programme in 2010. However, I have been further developing the same skills of reading, synthesizing, researching and writing at university ever since. Personally, I’m sure that the IB ethos of encouraging students to work independently helped me to get through all the term papers and group presentations during my undergraduate studies. The Extended Essay was a particularly good preparation for the chapters, dissertations and papers I have had to write since then—you won’t be surprised to hear that I wrote my EE in what was then called “English A2 HL”.

The CLiC project is hosted at the University of Birmingham. The project team is made up of Professor Michaela Mahlberg (principal investigator), Professor Peter Stockwell (co-investigator at the University of Nottingham) and Viola Wiegand (research fellow). The project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (grant reference AH/P504634/1).


Viola Wiegand is a graduate of the IB Diploma Programme at the Felix-Klein-Gymnasium in Göttingen, Germany. She studied English linguistics at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the University of Nottingham in the UK. Viola works as a research fellow at the University of Birmingham and has just finished her PhD. To relax from her academic work, she likes to knit in her spare time. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

To hear more from Diploma Programme (DP) graduates check out these IB programme stories. If you are an IB grad and want to share your story, write to us at [email protected]We appreciate your support in sharing IB stories and invite you to connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and now Instagram!

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