Author logo Language investigations at advanced level

What is the language investigation?
Outline of tasks
Comparative tasks - a warning
Presenting your investigation
Stages of production
Planning form
Permission to use material
Download guide as document file


This web page is intended for students who are following GCE Advanced level (AS and A2) syllabuses in English Language. It gives advice on language investigations. This resource may be of general interest to language students, but in places I may refer explicitly to requirements of the syllabuses or mode of examination.

What is the language investigation?

The Language Investigation is a compulsory element of some Advanced and Advanced Supplementary level courses. Candidates may have a choice whether to do this in a final exam paper or as a folder of coursework. This guide is aimed at students doing the investigation as coursework.

The language investigation is an effective method of linking theoretical understanding to language sources or data. For this reason, you may be expected to carry out several formal investigations and other short investigations as part of the Advanced or Advanced Supplementary level course. The work that you eventually submit to the examiners will be your best completed work, and you should receive appropriate support from your teachers, as far as the exam regulations permit, in preparing it.

The exam syllabus should contain guidelines about the investigation and instructions about the task, along with examples of suitable areas for investigation, followed by criteria for assessment, with mark ranges.

Although your exam board may not explicitly state this, you should work, as far as possible, with regard to academic conventions of presentation, using references and quoting authorities. Your work may be hand-written, but you are strongly encouraged to word process if this is possible. Ideally, your work should be in a Times Roman font, 12 point, justified or left-aligned, with double line spacing. A fuller set of guidelines appears below.

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Outline of tasks

In a sense, any investigation has two kinds of subject. The first is the data or text(s) to be studied. These may be written or spoken (in which case, you will need transcripts). The second kind of subject is the theoretical linguistic approach to the text. As you should now know, any text may be studied in terms (among other things) of phonology, lexis, grammar, semantics, pragmatics and discourse (AQA syllabus). Your theoretical method will usually fall under one only of these (or other) broad headings.

To show this, your investigation should have a title that includes both elements, the theoretical method usually coming first, e.g.: Operation of the metaphor in political speech-writing or Lexical change in girls' comics 1970 to 1998. Titles should be simply indicative of content - don't go for snappy, cryptic or clever titles unless you have good reason to think your teachers and other assessors will approve of this.

The whole course requires you to develop understanding of language theory. In the language investigation, you will apply what you have learned. While your teacher should introduce you to essential areas of theoretical knowledge, you should work independently, using your course textbooks and other authorities to gain a more thorough understanding of language theory in doing this work.

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Comparative tasks - a warning

Don't put the cart before the horse. Any comparison should arise out of a genuine language issue. It should be one where there is only one significant variable.

For example, comparing a text in the King James Bible (early 17th century) with the equivalent passage in the Revised Standard Version (mid 20th century) is an appropriate (and much-used) exercise in showing language change. (Though even here, other variables emerge as the translators bring in ideas from their own time, culture or religious understanding.)

By contrast, comparing reports on the same event in a tabloid and in a broadsheet newspaper is of little value to a student of language. Why?

  • First tabloid and broadsheet are, objectively, descriptions only of the paper size (note, for eaxmple, that the Guardian newspaper has a tabloid section - its content is not intentionally or generally less challenging to the readers than the content of the broadsheet it accompanies).
  • Second, the writers are not the same - this introduces a vast range of variables into the alleged comparison.
  • Third, we lack essential information (pragmatics and context) - did each writer work to a word count? How far did each writer's work get sub-edited? How much time did each have? Was the report done on the spot or worked up from an agency report? And so on.
  • But more to the point, what area of language study were we investigating anyway? Popular notions of “quality” in the broadsheet, insofar as they make sense at all, are value judgements about the truth or balance or thoroughness or whatever of the reporting (that is the informative content of the report) - which is not your subject at all (whereas it may be the subject of an investigation in media studies or sociology).

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To find, in such texts, significant differences in objective language use (e.g. statistical analysis of clause structures) is likely to be too taxing for even the most gifted of students. The notion of “quality” as in “the quality press” is strictly meaningless as a description of measurable language features.

Rather than think of a task and then try to justify it, you should work the other way round. Here is an area of language use about which I really want to know more (e.g. changes in the lexicon in a given time period or usage which shows attitudes to gender). I can then devise an investigation that uses appropriate data to give objective evidence that may in turn allow some broad interpretation and conclusion - e.g. frequency of usage of gender-neutral pronouns may reflect greater awareness that the pronoun should be inclusive, or, weakly, that the writer is aware that a masculine form (for both sexes or either) may give offence.

Although conclusions may include some subjective or relative comment, this should be plausible - that is, inferred from objective data, as in the example above. Your investigation must at some point contain objective explanation.

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For example, you should not attempt to measure the frequency in a text of “hard” or “long” words - as these descriptions have no objective value. You may, on the other hand, analyse a text against a given language corpus - to find, say, the incidence of occurrence of words among the 1,000 or 3,000 (or whatever) most commonly written (or spoken) lexemes according to a given corpus. For more help on this subject, see Professor David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, pp. 436-446 (Cambridge, 1995, ISBN 0-521-59655-6).

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Presenting your investigation

Ideally, this should be word-processed. This is not yet compulsory for all UK exam boards, but you will have to use computer software at university and in your job. Why not start now?

Title page

This should contain essential information - your name, candidate number (when you know it), exam centre number, syllabus, component, date of completion and so on:

  • 2180 Elsie Tanner
  • 44215 South Bronx School
  • AQA English Language (Advanced) 4111
  • Component Language A: Language Investigation
  • Title: Lexical change in girls' comics: 1970 to 1990
  • Completed January 2011

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Body text

The body text should be in a Times Roman font (if available) and justified or left aligned. Try not to split paragraphs over a page (“widows and orphans”). Use double or 1.5 line spacing. It may be helpful to write an abstract (outline or synopsis) of your investigation as your first paragraph. Conventionally this is marked off from what follows by smaller type size and/or indentation.

If you quote an authority (ideally you will) you should use superscript numbers (“CTRL” + [shift] “+”) to show this, and give the full reference1 at the end:


       1. Moore, A (1999). Academic Style Guide, Arcadia Press

You are also expected to give a full bibliography, to show texts studied directly, and those (academic works, probably) used to inform your explication of the texts studied.

Texts can be transcribed where features of graphology, typography etc. are not important (this will depend on what you are looking at). Spoken texts should be transcribed, observing conventions for this - the amount of information shown will depend upon the theoretical focus of your investigation.

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Original material should be photocopied (or scanned) and presented on separate pages or in an appendix. If the language data are found in, say, a child's exercise book, you may wish to include this in the folder of your work for the examiner. Similarly, you may need to submit original audio or video tapes, where this supports understanding of spoken language data.

Use your software to give a word count. You may exclude your title page and any appendixes, but must state this. You do include quotations in the count. Not sure how to do it? Use your word-processing program's Help, and don't be so lazy!


       3,798 words (counted by Microsoft Word; excludes title page and appendixes)

Please avoid handwriting directly onto a printout, unless it is absolutely necessary (and it never is).

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Stages of production

  • Discuss with supervisor the language area or variety you would like to research.
  • Agree to collect data by specified date.
  • By negotiation with supervisor, decide on clear question to ask about your chosen research area. This should be related to the data you have collected. If you have more data than you need, select from what you have.
  • Read appropriate secondary sources (language authorities). Make notes. Identify statements that may be worth quoting - those, for instance, which your research may support or challenge.
  • Work out a plan or agenda for your analysis of the data you have collected. You need to ensure that you cover all relevant structural or stylistic features, and that you keep within word limits.
  • Obtain permission to use data (see the form for this), where appropriate.
  • Transcribe data. For spoken data, use conventions relevant to the analysis you are attempting. Ensure you have a key or legend for any symbols that you use.

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  • Begin analysis. Show this to supervisor as soon as you have a sufficiently long and coherent section of comment. You need not work in the order in which your analysis will eventually appear (you may wish to analyse before evaluating, and to leave your conclusions, abstract and introduction until the end of the process).
  • Present findings in a suitable format. Use tables or graphical representations where this is helpful. Ensure that you record data objectively. Evaluation will be at least partly subjective, but should be informed by objective analysis.
  • Try to keep to your chosen theoretical framework - make use of an appropriate register for language science. Avoid popular myths about language - do not characterize non-standard forms as “bad” or “incorrect” for example.
  • Come to a conclusion - this should show that you have found out something real and worth knowing. Try to avoid stating the obvious - you may also leave open the reasons for or causes of what you have found. Try to bring your conclusion back to statements you have found in (and quoted from) secondary sources - showing how far your research supports these or contradicts them. If your findings do not support the views of these authorities, it does not mean either is mistaken - it may be evidence of language change with time or place.
  • Present your work carefully - observe conventions for writing a scientific report. Make sure all papers are clean and legible. Put your work in a suitable folder or binder, so it is easy for the examiner to assess. Make sure all appendices, letters of permission and original data sources (these may be audio or video recordings) are included, with dates, place of origin and other contextual information.

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Planning Form

Student name: (Write your name here)

Year of exam: (Enter year here)

Please use this form to record your planning decisions as you prepare for working on the language investigation.

Language data

In the box below, please list or describe the sources or texts that you have collected or intend to collect for study. Give as much information as you can about these data (e.g. where you found them; who is the speaker/writer, if known; purpose for which text was written/spoken, if known, and so on).

----Your text goes here-----
List or describe the sources or texts that you have collected or intend to collect for study. Give as much information as you can about these data (e.g. where you found them; who is the speaker/writer, if known; purpose for which text was written/spoken, if known, and so on).
----End of your text-----

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Authorities and reference

In the box below please list sources of information that you intend to use. You should specify those you have already and those you hope to acquire. In the case of general language textbooks, indicate chapter or section. If you are unable to find suitable reference works, we will recommend others. Note: It is absolutely essential that you give full reference information (publisher, year of publication etc.) for any authority you quote (including Web pages), so be sure you record this before returning a library book, say.

----Your text goes here----

I already have:

I hope to get:

I need more help on:

-----Your text ends here-----
Language areas that you expect to study

In the box below, please highlight or circle one or more areas of language that you will study in your investigation.

Language acquisition - Language change - Language varieties - Language and society

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Language levels

In the box below please highlight or circle the structural or functional features of language that you expect to study in your investigation.

Phonology - Graphology - Semantics - Grammar - Discourse structure
Working title and outline agenda for your investigation

In the box below, please write down a working title for your investigation, and a suggested agenda of things you expect to do. Please note that the title should not be witty or epigrammatic but as closely descriptive as possible: this is a scientific investigation. Your agenda may be over ambitious at this point: where it needs to be reduced to allow you to work in detail without transgressing your word count, we will advise you of this.

----Your text goes here----

Your text

Your text

Your text

Your text

Your text

Your text

-----Your text ends here-----

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Permission to use material

(The text below should be pasted into a document bearing the letterhead of the exam centre.)

To Whom It May Concern:

As part of my GCE Advanced Level work in English Language, I am conducting a Language Investigation. To do this, I am required to find real language data, and interpret them according to theoretical models of language.

As you have kindly supplied such data, I need your consent for the use I will make of them in this task. This letter explains what will happen to the data you have provided, and has a space for you to show your agreement to this. If you have any further questions about the Language Investigation, please contact the supervising teacher or head of department at my school.

If you have provided written data, I may make a typed copy, and may quote from the data. If you have provided spoken data, I will transcribe these.

The data you have supplied will be seen by the teacher supervising the investigation, and may be seen by other teachers running the GCE Advanced Level course, as well as by moderators (examiners) of coursework who assess the work of candidates at the school.

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If my teachers or I wish to place the investigation in the public domain (by print, broadcast or Web publishing) they or I will seek your permission. If you give permission, the publication of your data will conform to normal ethical procedures for scientific research - your surname will be shown only as an initial, and other identifying information will not appear.

Please show your consent to my use of the data you have supplied by signing the form below.

Thank you for your help,

Student Investigator

Supervising Teacher

I have read the information about the use that will be made of language data that I have supplied. I am the person legally entitled to give permission to use these data, which were originally written or spoken by me or by a child of whom I am the parent or legal guardian, and on whose behalf I can give such permission.

I agree to allow you to use the data I have provided. You may use these data only in the way you have described. If you wish to publish the data, you will seek my further permission for this.

Print name:

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Download or open this guide as a document file

If you wish to use this guide offline, or customize it for your use or, if you are a teacher, for your students' use, you are welcome to do so. Please will you acknowledge my authorship and copyright in this guide?

The guide is available as a document file for Microsoft Word (versions 6.0/95 onwards) and as a Rich Text Format (RTF) file, which should be compatible with most modern word-processing programs. To open the file, click on the hyperlink with the left button on your mouse or other pointing device (unless you are left-handed and have switched the button functions on your mouse). To download the file, use your right mouse button, and indicate the area on your hard drive, floppy disk drive or other storage area where you wish to save the file.

Open (left click) or download (right click) the file as a:

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