If a division can be made between those ‘A’ levels which, requiring the student to reproduce lengthy sections from his notes more or less verbatim, call above all for a good memory, and others which emphasise the cultivation of transferable skills, to be applied, in the exam, in new and unfamiliar contexts, then English Language may be seen as belonging squarely in the latter category. Typically, a Language exam at ‘A’ level calls upon the student to analyse various kinds of linguistic discourse (spoken or written, ancient or modern, literary or non-literary, informal or stylized) from an array of perspectives (phonological, morphological, syntactical, lexical, orthographic, stylistic, rhetorical), or to recast material from one format or style into another, and then supply a detailed commentary on the nature of the alterations he has made. The successful candidate is the one who exhibits a highly developed and multi-faceted linguistic sensitivity, equally attuned to seventeenth-century religious sermons and twenty-first-century advertisements.
English Language is not for the faint-hearted, then. If it is difficult and demanding, however, it is also enormously rewarding, in more than one sense. Anyone who completes the ‘A’-level course successfully will, in the process, add cubits to his intellectual stature, and make himself an attractive proposition in the eyes of university teachers responsible for offering places at their institutions.
The syllabus we tend to pursue, ceteris paribus, at Duff Miller is AQA Spec B.
The following outline observes the divisions made by that syllabus, but includes material which, differently distributed, appears on all ‘A’-level Language syllabuses.
Modules one and three are examined.
Module one sets two questions. The first, after which the paper is named, invites the candidate to respond to a range of texts reproduced on the paper and to place them in categories of his (or her) devising in such a way as to demonstrate the repertoire of linguistic tools of analysis at his (or her) disposal. He (or she) may, for example, find that two of the given texts are transcripts of spoken English and feature expressions which we would never (or rarely) use in writing, or that two of them employ non-standard forms indicative of the class status or regional origins of the speaker/writer. Another two texts may date from earlier eras and make use of words which have since undergone semantic change. Any meaningful set of distinctions revelatory of the candidate’s linguistic understanding will be highly rewarded, and the module gives him (or her) a chance to show off the wealth of his (or her) knowledge.
The second question concerns the relationship between language and gender as it manifests itself in a reproduced passage. The candidate may, for example, be expected to notice the use of the personal pronoun ‘he’ in a generic manner, or the avoidance of that lapse into sexism (as demonstrated by my own fastidious but long-winded parentheses in the paragraph above). Like several other components of the ‘A’ level, this one requires the candidate to bring knowledge of theoretical writing – by feminist linguists and critics (like the Deborahs, Tannen and Cameron) – to bear upon a particular text.
Module three is about language development, in the two senses of that term. It tests the candidate’s knowledge of how children develop the ability to speak (at a surprisingly rapid rate and with remarkable success in comparison to an adult’s attempts to acquire a second language), and of how a language develops over time, undergoing such profound alterations in the space of a few hundred years that a text from the eighteenth century, say, can sometimes confound the understanding of a modern English-speaker. In both cases, the method of testing involves analysis of a given passage (or perhaps two in the case of the question about language change over time) in the light of the competing theories the candidate has encountered in the course of preparing for the module.
The two coursework modules – two and four – call upon the candidate to exhibit a wide array of skills
Module two combines the creative and the critical. The candidate must write two pieces differentiated by audience (one to be read, the other to be listened to) and purpose (to persuade, to entertain, to inform, etc.), and then comment on the linguistic features of the two texts which bear testimony to their different constituencies and ends.
Module four takes the form of a linguistic investigation of any topic which has particularly engaged the student earlier in the course, and gives him (or her) the chance to collect linguistic data of his (or her) own and to devise a method of analysis appropriate to the chosen field of study.
Although (illegitimately?) placed in group two by the Russell-group universities and not therefore to be accompanied by another group-two subject (if the student is planning to apply to a top-ranking university), English Language is still an eminently respectable ‘A’ level highly rated by most reputable universities. It can lead to a degree in Linguistics or to a mixed degree in Language and Literature, or, indeed, contribute valuably to an application for a degree in an unrelated subject.
There are certain jobs, such as Advertising, for which an ‘A’ level in English Language particularly equips one, but, more generally, it serves as a demonstration of analytical powers and expressive competence in the eyes of employers across a wide spectrum of occupations.
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