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Student Perspective: Karolina

Karolina is from Bubeneč in the Czech Republic. She did the International Baccalaureate with French, English Language and Literature, Biology and Geography at Higher Level. Karolina has just finished her first year studying Linguistics here at King's College, Cambridge.

Why did you choose to study Linguistics?

I had always wanted to study something to do with languages, but somehow the idea of studying specific languages didn’t seem to tick the right criteria. I realised that studying only a select few languages felt limiting, and wouldn’t explain the more complex aspects of language, like why there are so many similarities and differences between languages across the world, and how and why people understand the same sentence so differently. I wanted to understand how language works and the deeper workings of language, and to me that’s exactly what Linguistics is.

What attracted you to Cambridge?

I liked the Linguistics course at Cambridge because it is pure Linguistics, as opposed to Linguistics and Psychology/English/a language.

The first year gives a very solid introduction to most areas of Linguistics with the core papers covering Phonetics, Phonology, Morphology (paper 1), Syntax, Semantics, Pragmatics (paper 2), Sociolinguistics, Psycholinguistics, Language Acquisition (paper 3) and the History and Varieties of English (paper 4). In later years you get to choose very specific areas that you find most interesting, all while being lectured by leading academics in the field and guided by supervisors who are there to make sure you understand and help you out when you don’t. The ability to choose my papers in later years means that the overall course is very flexible, and I knew that my dissertation in third year can be on an area that I am genuinely interested in.

In addition to the course, Cambridge is a beautiful city, full of history and student culture, and as a very active person I love that there are always events and societies to attend.

Why King's College?

I think that what initially attracted me to King’s was the open and friendly atmosphere, and, as I'm an international student, the fact that it is one of the most international colleges seemed to make it the perfect choice.

King's also seemed to be just the right size in terms of both college population and buildings. I think that a lot of people see photos of King’s online and get intimidated by the size of it, but it’s important to realize that the largest part of the college is the Chapel, so the actual living space of King’s isn’t all that big. The number of people means that it is easy to get to know people in all subjects and across all years, and many of my friends last year were Masters and PhD students – King’s is wonderful in that everyone lives in the same central area of the city, so you run into friends and friends-of-friends everywhere.

I also liked the location: the fact that the college is so close to Sainsbury’s (no one wants to lug huge shopping bags across half the city) and so close to my lectures – only an 8 minute walk from my room to the lecture block, and never more than a 15 minute walk to any of my supervisions (for me it was usually about 3-5 minutes, but it will depend on where your supervisor sets the location for that week). Being an active person, the relative proximity of King’s to pretty much every society and sports ground made it the perfect choice, and I’d be lying if I said that having our own college kayaks wasn’t part of the reason I chose King’s over a different central college.

Another major advantage of living at King’s is that we have our own Linguistics fellow and Director of Studies, who is available for academic support and guidance, but more on that later.

Did you find it easy to settle in when you arrived?

I loved my first year at King’s and found it very easy to settle in and meet people. Admittedly being the only Linguist in my year made it slightly more challenging to find people with the same schedule, so it took me a while to really find a group of friends that I could hang out with. However, this is the challenge most Linguistics students encounter at any college and it’s simply a result of how small our course is. It’s never a real issue, though. If anything, it means that you end up meeting lots of people across subjects and years, and if you’re a sociable person or someone who is interested in other subjects as well, this is a great thing.

What was the transition from school to studying at Cambridge like?

Before coming to Cambridge, I attended an IB (International Baccalaureate) school in the Czech Republic. I suppose that in a way I expected the university environment to be similar to my high school environment because everyone was busy working on their own thing and we all had our own chosen subjects that we attended classes for, much like students at university attend specific lectures but have friends in other subjects. This turned out to be true in that I really did make a lot of friends studying completely different subjects, but we all have far less time for each other than I did for my friends back in high school.

The approach to studying is also very different at university; I never realised just how much information is spoon-fed to us by the teachers until I got here and found that I have to do almost all the reading myself. The good thing about this is that if you find one area interesting, you have a lot more freedom to read more about it and discuss it in an essay, as long as it is relevant to the overall topic.

Another major difference between high school and university is that at Cambridge you’re constantly surrounded by your friends and a strong support network thanks to the college accommodation system. This can at times get exhausting and I know I sometimes feel the need to just have some time to myself, but again the good thing is that if you need some time alone, you just go to your room or go for a walk through the gorgeous Cambridge streets, while if you want to be sociable you only have to go downstairs/across the street and you have everyone in the college bar to socialise with.

One thing that surprised me was just how much more intense the workload is here. Throughout the IB our teachers kept telling us that with the way the diploma is structured, we’ll have lots of experience with time management and prioritisation, and that IB is a great way to prepare for university. This might be true to a certain extent, but personally I found the difference between my high school workload and even my initial Cambridge workload shocking. To be fair, my friends at other universities seemed to find it much easier to adjust, so it might just be that the Cambridge workload starts being intense that much earlier.

How do supervisions work in Linguistics?

Supervisions in Linguistics are different from many other subjects in that we have much larger groups (between 5-6 students in one supervision group) and often you’ll have an MML student in at least one of your supervisions.

In first year I had four main supervision groups (one for each paper), with the core students being the same in each group, but with supervisors (and potential MML students) varying for each paper. My supervisors were usually PhD students specializing in the area currently being taught in each paper, meaning that in papers like Li4 (History and Varieties of English) I had two different supervisors that changed halfway through the year, and in Li1 (Sounds and Words) you can either have one supervisor for the whole year, or one for each of the three areas (Phonetics, Phonology, and Morphology), depending on what people are studying that year.

I've found that the advantage of having PhD students as supervisors is that they are usually very understanding of any issues/questions you may have, since they studied the same thing so recently. Also, they usually reply to question emails extremely quickly and efficiently. Most of the time my supervisions are very useful in consolidating my knowledge from that week’s lectures, and since I only had four lectures per week in the first year, the additional 2-4 supervisions a week (6 supervisions per paper each term) helped guide my studies and gave me a time to discuss any extra reading I'd done. When the lecture material is complex, I find that supervision assignments help structure things in a way that helps me understand it better. At times when the lecture material is rather straight-forward, supervision assignments can focus on something tangentially related that will help me to prepare for the following week’s more complex material or just help to teach me the material to a deeper level.

How do you prepare for supervisions?

It depends on the material, but to give some examples, when you’re learning about phonetics, you may be instructed to do a transcription of a text or recording, usually in SSBE (Standard Southern British English – don’t worry if this is not your natural dialect, they teach you all you need to know in the first couple of weeks!) as a way to help you get used to writing in IPA.

When learning about Heritage language speakers in the Language Acquisition part of Li3 (Language, Brain and Society), you might be instructed to read an article published in a research paper and see how much information you can glean about the specific studies described, while also being encouraged to analyse the presentation style of the article and to compare the results of the study with results of studies covered in lectures. This is a great way to learn about additional theories while simultaneously forcing you to think critically about what you’re reading, and often at the end you’re given the opportunity to state which of several contradictory conclusions you find to be more sound or better supported by evidence.

Personally, the topic I found most interesting this year was Pragmatics in the second half of Li2 (Structures and Meanings). This part of the course is incredibly eye-opening in terms of just how much of our day-to-day communication is achieved through implicatures and entailments, and the philosophical/context-dependent nature of the topic makes for very entertaining supervision discussions.

What are the facilities like for Linguists?

The King’s Library is surprisingly well-equipped for Linguistics, especially considering that there are only 1-2 places for Linguistics freshers each year (don’t let this statistic scare you off, it’s SO worth applying for!). There are several shelves fully stocked with all the main Linguistics books you’ll need, and anything not in the King’s Library can found either in the MML library (our parent faculty), online, or requested to be bought in by King’s.

Other than the library, there aren’t any facilities specifically for linguistics at King’s, but there are some incredibly cool Linguistics labs for phonetics and psycholinguistics in the department, though they’re only accessible if you’re taking those papers after first year.

Where do you usually work?

The books in the King’s library are separated by subject, but people tend to sit wherever they feel comfortable, so you never feel like a Linguistics loner! Thanks to this I spent a lot of evenings studying in the library, as I didn’t feel as tempted by my bed in my room. However it is a personal choice - I know many people who prefer to study in their rooms, in the King’s bar, in the cafeteria, or somewhere completely different. The beauty of the central location of King’s college is that you’re free to study pretty much anywhere you want, and most cafes/libraries/colleges are walking distance from your room.

What was the hardest thing about the Linguistics course initially?

Since Linguistics only has four lectures per week in first year (one for each of the four intro papers), Linguistics students end up having to do a lot of reading and self-study.

The reading is primarily guided by each week’s supervision assignment, as they often require more knowledge than just that taught in the related lecture. There is also a paper-specific reading list online, and there tends to be a topic-specific reading list at the end of each lecture. Ideally, you should aim to read as much as possible, especially if you do not understand a topic, though realistically you will not be able to read everything on the list, so you end up having to prioritise a lot.

The reading can get quite tedious at times, and it can be exhausting when you realize that you’ve just spent the last eight hours reading for a supervision assignment but only have one page’s worth of useable notes. Add to this actually having to write a well reasoned and well structured essay or complete a full exercise list up to four times a week, and the workload can get quite challenging, especially if you’re a slow reader or have a lot of societies/activities you want to fit in to your weekly schedule.

I struggled quite a bit to learn how to plan my time in such a way that I didn’t end up staying up for half the night to make sure I finish my supervision tasks before the deadline, and to be honest I missed a few deadlines in Michaelmas term (wouldn’t recommend doing this, it’s very stressful), but I got the hang of it as the year progressed. The workload doesn’t actually ease up, but you get used to everything taking longer than initially planned and after a few close calls you get pretty good at managing your time.

It’s important to realize that Cambridge isn’t an easy place to be a student, and especially in Linguistics, you end up having to be very independent and organized. However, if you’re passionate about Linguistics, Cambridge is definitely a good place to study it, not least because so many of the leading academics in the field are your lecturers.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the main advantages of King’s over other colleges is that we have our own Linguistics fellow, Bert Vaux, here. As a King’s Linguistics student, this means you have very easy access to your DoS (Director of Studies) and it is much easier to ask subject-related questions and get your DoS’ signature on important subject-related forms such as the library request form. Bert specializes in Phonology (part of Li1), but also knows very much about the rest of Li1 and parts of other papers, so you’ll have very good academic support.

Can you tell us more about fitting in other activities?

If you’re an active person or enjoy extra-curricular activities, it can be quite difficult to strike a good balance between work and social life. While there is always work to be done, the lack of set structure in the Linguistics course means that it can be difficult to figure out exactly how much time you’ll need for each task.

Personally, I took the fact that we only have 8 hours of lectures/supervisions per week to mean that if I fit into the typical 8/8/8 structure I’d have lots of time to do other things. Unfortunately, supervision work almost always takes longer than expected, but since I only realized this after joining lots of societies, I found myself struggling to fit in the appropriate amount of work. Nevertheless, after the first few weeks of struggling with the increasingly heavy workload, I found a balance that worked pretty well and ended up doing a lot of society-related things.

My main activities in first year were rowing (at Cambridge, how could I not?) three times a week, kayaking (King’s has its own kayaks!), athletics for the first term, Swahili at the Language Centre (definitely worth attending if you like languages, and King’s will reimburse 50% of the cost if you finish the course), and Lighting Design at the ADC theatre. I loved this mix of activities because it meant that I got my physical exercise in the sports and my mental exercise at the language centre, in additional to getting to be creative in lighting design, since academic time can often feel restrictive in terms of having to adhere to specific structures and strict guidelines.

Keep in mind that not all students will have time to or even want to do this many activities, and many students will stick to only one society or nothing at all – this is perfectly normal too, and not all Cambridge students are as masochistic as I am in terms of using every spare minute to do something different!

How much do you spend time with friends?

As you can understand, doing all these activities didn’t leave particularly much time to hang out with college friends during the week, but I ended up making society-specific friends as well so I combined societies and social life into one block of time. At the weekend I usually spent most of the day working or catching up on sleep and then the evenings hanging out with college friends.

One of the plus sides of Linguistics being such a small course is that it’s very easy to get to know the other linguists, and since most of us are the only ones in our year at our college, we get to visit many other colleges and make friends there as well. It also means that you’re almost forced to make friends in other subjects at your college, which I personally find to be a great thing in that you learn so much about subjects you would never have encountered otherwise. Also, students of bigger subjects such as NatSci or Engineering often tend to stick together in the beginning, and smaller subject students often help prevent the formation of subject-specific cliques, making the college environment more mixed and open.

Where did you live this year?

My accommodation in first year was in Keynes building, the main building right above the King’s bar and servery/canteen. The room itself was relatively modern and had an en-suite bathroom (bathtub included). There was sufficient shelf space and closet space, and large suitcases could be left in trunk rooms if necessary, though I never took advantage of this because I felt that my room was big enough to fit them.

Each room in Keynes also has its own personal fridge, but unfortunately there are only very basic hobs in the building so it is difficult to get any real cooking done. Because of this I ended up going to the servery most of the time, but if you make friends in Spalding hostel (the other first year accommodation building) you can also use their ovens/stoves for more elaborate cooking plans.

We weren’t allowed to put up posters on the walls, but there are always ways around this (like metallic wire or poster hooks) and outside my room there was also a little whiteboard where I wrote my name and some other stuff to help make my room a little more personal.

Overall I was very happy with my first year accommodation, and having seen some rooms at other colleges I definitely think it’s one of the better ones for first year.

Did you find the International Baccalaureate useful?

I found that taking the IB at school was an extremely useful thing for me, not only because of time management and independent study, but also because it meant that I could study a wide range of subjects. My Higher Level (HL) subjects were Biology, Geography, English, and French, and my Standard Level (SL) subjects were Swedish and Maths. People often say that you can come to Linguistics from a science background or from a humanities background, and I feel that the IB helped me come to it from both backgrounds at once, which has allowed me to understand many topics from different perspectives.

The disadvantage of studying the IB is that universities often place slightly higher requirements on their conditional offers. That said, I can see the value of the A-level system as it allows you to focus more deeply on specific subjects, and other high school diplomas/systems all have their own pros and cons, too. In general, I don’t think it matters what kind of school you’re at or exactly which qualification system you're in when you’re applying, as long as you’re passionate and willing to put in the time to prepare – if anything, the more time you have to spend preparing independently before university, the easier you’ll find independent study once you’re here. 

Did you do anything in particular to prepare for your application?

I found that my school was very supportive about me applying to Cambridge, but no one really knew how to help me prepare or what to prepare me for. I was one of three students to apply to Oxbridge unis from my school, so we all helped each other find resources, but most of my preparation was independent. It mostly consisted of reading lots of books, journals, and articles online (mostly Wikipedia and reddit), and forcing my friends and relatives to hold short interviews with me as often as possible to ease my nerves.

My main book recommendations would have to be The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker and David Crystal’s Language Encyclopaedia. I would also recommend looking at the online outline of the Cambridge course and reading briefly about specific topics to see where your main interests lie – being able to pinpoint specific things you want to learn more about shows that you know what you’re applying for and that you have a true interest for the subject. 

How did you find the interviews?

In terms of interviews, I was pleasantly surprised. I had been told, as I’m sure many others have been, that the interviews are extremely tough and that the interviewers will try to trip you up with unexpected questions to test your knowledge and thinking ability. While I was confronted with several questions I did not directly know the answers to, I also found that the interviewers were very understanding of the fact that Linguistics is not a subject regularly taught or even mentioned in high school, and as such the questions seemed to be mostly focused on trying to gauge my interest in the subject and my ability to deduce new information from unseen data.

Do you have any plans for the summer?

My plans for this summer are to spend 10 weeks in Kenya working with Education Partnerships Africa, an East Africa-focused charity that recruits students from Cambridge, Oxford, and London universities. I’ll spend the greater part of the 10 weeks working at a rural school in Western Kenya, investing in and overseeing projects that will help the school develop and improve the educational opportunities of its students. Because of how long this programme is, I won’t have time to take on any internships, but I’m planning to have a summer-long internship next summer, hopefully working on something related to whatever dissertation topic I choose.

Do you have an idea of what you’d like to do after you graduate?

In terms of the distant future, I don’t really know what I want to work in yet. One of the things I find most interesting at the moment is computer linguistics, specifically how programmes like Siri and Google translate work. I don’t know if I’d rather work in the phonetics and phonology aspect of linguistics (for example making Siri’s speech and intonation sound more natural), on the syntax aspect (for example helping to improve Google translate’s grasp and control of linguistic cases), or on the pragmatic aspect (such as helping Google translate make better translations based on contextual cues).

I’d also quite like to work in speech synthesis, like creating technology that can help those unable to speak express themselves using a computerised voice that sounds like the person’s voice – just imagine Stephen Hawking sounding just like he did before he got ill, or being able to programme robots to have specific accents without having to pre-record everything they say.


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