Essay Topics On Linguistics

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How to find a topic for your linguistics paper

I get occasional questions asking me for good topics to write an end-of-semester linguistics paper on. The bad news is, I don’t have a list of ideas that I can just pass out to people, because that’s not really how finding a topic works. The good news is, here’s a series of questions that will help you find something to write about for any linguistics course. 

1. What parts of the course did you find most interesting? 

Even if your prof gives you free rein as to your topic, it’s generally supposed to have something to do with the course. So go back to the syllabus, flip through your notes and readings, and think about what parts of the course you enjoyed more than others. Or if your course didn’t get to cover all the chapters in your textbook, have a leaf through the remaining ones and see if any of them look interesting. Another option is to go interdisciplinary: is there another area that you’re interested in (e.g. psychology, sociology, music, gender, bilingualism, communications disorders, children especially if you have them already in your life) that you could combine with some aspect of the course? 

Make a shortlist for yourself of a couple options and have a quick google to see if any of them look like they have lots more information available or turn into dead ends. Some courses may be fine with you replicating something that’s already out there, just for the experience of figuring it out yourself, while some may be more keen on you working on something brand new. 

2. Where are you going to get data? 

Linguistics papers generally analyze some sort of data, so where is that data going to come from? Certain types of courses tend to involve certain types of data sources, so you could follow the trend of whatever types of data sources you’ve been discussing in class, or be more unconventional and figure out how to cross-apply a different one. Common sources of linguistic data include: 

A) Other article(s)

Especially if you’re in a lower-level linguistics class (maybe first or second year), it may be enough to summarize other research available on a topic the course didn’t get to or didn’t cover in detail. If you’re in an upper-level course, you probably can’t just summarize, but you may be able to use data from an older article and re-analyze it using a newer theory that you learned in class. 

Even if you could do this option though, it’s often more fun to collect some of your own data (see below), which you can then compare to what you did in the course and/or further research you’ve done. Note however that if it’s for a course, you don’t need a ton of data like you would for a full research paper, so watch out for spending too much time on data collection. 

B) Fieldwork

Do you know someone who speaks another language, especially as a native speaker? Perhaps you do yourself, or you have a friend, roommate, family member, language teacher, internet acquaintance, etc. who wouldn’t mind answering a few questions about their language, especially if you baked them cookies/proofread their essay/helped them with another project? (It does help if you already know a little bit of the language, so if you want to ask your language teacher, make sure you do it when they’re not busy teaching, such as during office hours if they’re not swamped with people asking about the course itself. Or find another person who speaks a language you’re studying.) 

One fruitful source of topics is “how does [phenomenon I found interesting in the course] work in [other language]? Oftentimes something will work more or less differently in a language different from the one(s) it’s originally been investigated in, especially if you look at a typologically unrelated language - how might the theory you talked about in class need to change to accommodate this new data? Is it remarkable for some other reason even if it doesn’t actually change? If there are two possible options, does the new language follow one of them or does it need a third? 

Does it make sense to make recordings, or is it better to just write things down? (Depends a lot on your topic, but Praat and Audacity are free programs that you can use to record and manipulate audio.) What kinds of more simple information do you need to know about the language in order to make sense of the thing you’re asking for? Are there words used in the thing you’re translating that don’t have direct equivalents or that translate in more than one way? Do you need to make up a context in which you could logically say something in order for the speaker to feel more comfortable translating it? How can you present this data in a way that makes sense to someone who doesn’t speak the language? (If these types of questions interest you, you may also want to take a field methods course.) 

Depending on how well-studied the phenomenon and language are, you may be able to do a combination of looking things up and asking a speaker or two, but definitely don’t use Google Translate for grammaticality judgements! 

Sometimes looking into another dialect will also work here, and sometimes it won’t really change anything – it depends a lot on the phenomenon and the dialect. It’s worth thinking about if you have another dialect you’re interested in though. You may even be able to construct a few more examples in English that would further test a phenomenon you found interesting – although be sure to run them by a couple non-linguists to make sure your grammaticality judgements haven’t gotten fried by thinking about them too long. 

C) Experiment

Other types of courses and topics lend themselves well to experiments. Depending on the equipment involved, you may not actually be able to run the experiment (eg an eye-tracking or EEG study), or you may be able to run a few willing friends (eg a wug test or a Stroop test), but you can still write up what you would do if you were going to run it, why you’d run it that way, what types of interesting results you might find, and what those would mean for whatever theory you’re testing. 

Or combine B) and C) for how a particular experiment that you talked about in class might have to be adapted if it were run in a different language, with a different age group, with different stimuli, by taking up some area for future research that the previous authors noticed, by combining it with some other study, etc. Is this something that people are going to be good at reporting their own behaviour on? Or what type of behaviour could you measure that would indicate the thing you’re interested in?  

D) Survey 

You might be able to come up with a few straightforward questions related to a class phenomenon that you can ask a larger number of people, using paper or an online tool like Google Forms. (I tried SurveyMonkey for this once too, but I found that it asked me for money if you get more than a certain number of results.) It’s generally most straightforward to find people if you do a survey for a group that you’re part of, such as people around your age, people from [wherever you’re from], people who speak [language or dialect you grew up speaking], etc. 

Think about the pros and cons of running a survey versus just asking one or two people: is it better to be able to ask deeper/follow-up questions, or to have more results? Are you expecting results to vary depending on some demographic factor? What would it mean if they do or do not? Is this something that people are going to be good at reporting their own behaviour on, or would it be better to look at a corpus? 

E) Corpus

You may be able to find an existing corpus or data set to analyze (Google Books, COCA, BNC, GloWBE, WALS are potentially useful). Or build your own smaller, more specific corpus of a topic you’re interested in: perhaps from books, posts, or lyrics by a particular person or in a particular genre? You can also go really old or really new with corpora: dead languages like Latin or historical forms of English, or emerging language on social media. You may also be able to create a corpus from audio or video recordings, but be warned that transcribing can take a long time. 

Questions to think about: What might a corpus tell you that would be distinct from asking people? Could you find a corpus of a different language or dialect? How easy or hard is it going to be to search for your phenomenon of interest in a corpus? Why might you select a particular corpus and not another one? Are you looking for just any examples, or for examples in a particular statistical proportion? Does a lack of examples prove something isn’t possible, or are you not looking hard enough? 

Note on ethics: 

Generally profs will ask you to choose a topic in advance and discuss it with them, partly so that they can help you develop it in a direction that works for the course, partly so that they can identify any ethical issues that may arise. For many of these options, including re-analyzing another paper’s data, designing an experiment that you don’t actually run, or working with existing public information, ethics clearance wouldn’t be an issue. For the other topics, many linguistics profs get umbrella ethics clearance for their courses precisely so that they can have students run small-scale fieldwork, experiments, or surveys, but you should double-check with your professor if you have any questions, especially if you’re thinking of doing research with a more vulnerable group like children. 

But even if it’s cleared by an ethics board, it’s still the responsible thing to do to make sure that anyone who is answering your questions knows what they’re getting into and is comfortable and enthusiastic about doing so. It’s generally not considered particularly ethically questionable to ask a couple friends what they think of a couple sentences though – just think about how you’d ask for a personal favour that would take the same amount of time and effort. I see linguists all the time asking about things on Facebook and other social media, which can be nice because it lets people opt-in to answering more than asking them individually. 

Note on re-using topics

While it’s not a good idea to write the same paper for different classes, it’s totally find to re-use the same general approach if you find one that works for you and the courses you’re in. For example, if you like writing papers of the style “but how does [phenomenon] work in [other language]?” or “how does [course topic] cross over with [other thing I’m interested in]?” or “but what if we tested [phenomenon] with [other methodology]?” you can pretty much just keep doing that – and that’s probably a sign that you want to consider that a “research interest”. (If you’re worried that your papers for two classes overlap too much, talk about it with your profs.)

The one place where it’s acceptable and even encouraged to re-use topics is when you’re doing an independent research topic (thesis, independent study course, etc.). Then you can take a topic that you wrote a course paper on and discuss with your advisor about how to do it more deeply: actually run a decent-sized experiment, get data from a representative set of people, ask about more things, and so on. So if you end up biting off quite a large topic for a course paper, it may be worth talking to the prof about how you could make it manageable as a course paper but then keep working on it if you’re still finding it interesting. 

In general, I’d strongly advise that you talk to your professor about whether a topic is suitable. This is what they’re there for. Your prof’s office hours are probably in the syllabus (email to set up a separate meeting if and only if you have checked the syllabus and you can’t make that particular time), so drop by at least a few weeks before the paper is due with a few ideas of what you found interesting in the class and what other interests you might want to cross over with, and your prof can nudge you in a particular direction and make sure you haven’t bitten off too-large of a project. But it’s a good idea to do the pre-thinking described above so you don’t walk into your prof’s office without any ideas at all.

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