Language investigations

This page contains a range of investigation tasks for exploring the English language in every day situations. For each investigation there is a PDF download as well as a little information about the linguistic feature the task deals with.

Click on the title of an investigation to access its PDF download

Language and social media

Social media has changed the way we communicate with each other. But has it just shifted the conversation, or has social media changed what the conversation looks like altogether? Does it depend on the platform, the people and the genre? Consider these and other questions in this language investigation.

Gendered language practices in televised or online political debates

The 2015 UK General Election broke new ground by having three female party leaders debate alongside four male party leaders in one televised debate, and three women and two men in another. But were the women and men treated equally? And did they perform in different or similar ways? What about in other political debates? Explore these and other questions in this language investigation.

Creaky voice

In 2015, Naomi Wolf, the American feminist and author, wrote an article in The Guardian newspaper entitled “Young women, give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice”. The “vocal fry” that Wolf refers to in her title is a type of what linguists call a “voice quality” – a way of shaping the overall sound of your voice so that it either sounds more “harsh” and “hoarse” or more “breathy”.

Have a good day

In some service industries in Britain, typically American expressions like ‘Hi, how are you’ and ‘Have a nice day!’ are becoming more widely used. These innovations are often disliked as they seem counter to our traditional British reserve. As a result they are sometimes thought to be impolite. You could investigate the politeness routines used in service encounters in your home town.

Phrasal verbs

This is a language investigation about language variation, focusing on phrasal verbs in English. These are verbs with a particle like on, up or off that helps to form their meaning.

Which sounds more natural to you?
(1) she turned on the light or (2) she turned the light on?
(3) he cut open the melon or (4) he cut the melon open?

Gay

Words change their meanings over time, and sometimes the changes happen so quickly that we can spot them in action. You could investigate ongoing semantic change in the English language by looking at the changing meanings of just one word, for example the adjective gay.

Like

Do you use like as a discourse marker? People often think it’s only teenagers who use like this way, but research in the USA by Christopher Odato* has found that young children now use like too – even children as young as 4. What about children in the UK though? You could investigate this, seeing whether young children in your part of the country use the discourse marker like.

Language brokering

Children and young people from immigrant families sometimes translate or interpret into English for an adult in their family whose English is not good enough for them to be able to cope outside the home. This activity is known as ‘language brokering’. You could investigate for yourself how people in your own community feel about language brokering.

General extenders

Researchers have found that little phrases such as and stuff or and stuff like that, and everything and or something have important discourse functions in spoken English. You could investigate their functions and whether they have their literal meaning by gathering your own data.

Intensifiers

We all like to boost (or intensify) the force of our adjectives (and other words), so words like ‘very’ and ‘really’ (intensifiers) get used a lot, and then lose their force as people get used to hearing them. This means that the words people choose as intensifiers tend to change quite quickly. You could investigate variation and change in intensifiers in several ways.

Second person plural forms

Most languages have separate words for singular and plural pronouns. English used to have separate second person pronouns too, but since thou fell out of use the ‘you’ pronoun has had to do double duty. How do we deal with this problem?

Directions

“Do you know where the railway station is?” Do men and women give different kinds of directions when they are asked a question like this? This is a language investigation for students who want to go out into the community to find out about everyday language use.

Compliments

Twenty or thirty years ago, researchers found that most compliments were given by women to other women, as a way of being friendly and, often, to start up a conversation. Many female compliments were about appearance, especially when someone had taken some trouble to look good. Is this true of the people you know? You could investigate this by keeping track of their compliments over a week or so.

Call centre speech style

Recent research suggests that there is a global call centre speech style. To investigate this you could collect your own data by phoning and comparing two call centres based in different areas in the UK (e.g. London and Scotland) or even in two different countries (e.g. UK and India) or you could compare two different business sectors (e.g. banking and a computer helpline). What similarities in style do you find?