Contributed by Chow Keng Ji (14S07C), Woon Xinhui (14A01C) and Marcia Lee (14A01F)
ELL: English Language and… Literature?
If you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking of taking up an alternative to the most common contrasting Arts subject (we haven’t met many who don’t share the general distaste for Econs graphs). You probably have some interest in language. But you may think ELL is like Literature.
That last clause isn’t all that unlikely, and we’re pretty sure some of us ELL students came in expecting something similar. While that isn’t entirely untrue – both involve textual analysis and essay writing – you will soon realise that linguistic features and literary devices are two very different things.
While both subjects are all about language, linguistics is a discipline with a vastly different approach towards it. Unlike other subjects like CLL, ELL happens to be the only “LL” that stands for “language and linguistics“, and not “language and literature”. In fact, students do well even with zero experience in literature, which is hardly a prerequisite or a guarantee of excellence.
In ELL, you will learn about how language works through a more systematic approach. ELL students need to be sensitive to how language use varies according to the context. You should also be prepared to discuss language issues in their broader social, geographical and historical contexts.
Of course, a strong command of English will be required (this is expected of Literature students as well). The minimum criterion to offer ELL in RI is a GPA of 3.6 for English Language or an A2 for English Language O levels.
Is ELL all about being a ‘grammar Nazi’?
Another common misconception is that if someone is more particular about the way s/he phrases things, and insists on using “proper English”, they would be more suitable for ELL. In the first few lessons, your notion of “correctness” in language is immediately shattered, with the teachers warning you about the pitfalls of making value judgments about language use.
In ELL, you will discover a whole new way of looking at and thinking about language. “Standard” and “non-standard” quickly replace “right” and “wrong” in your vocabulary. You’ll realise how all forms of English have their own unique grammatical rules. For example, Singlish, or Colloquial Singapore English, rather than being “a broken, corrupted form of English”, is just another variety of English, as is Black English (African American Vernacular English) or Netspeak (Computer Mediated Communication).
Linguists prefer to adopt a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, approach to language. That means that instead of telling people how they should speak and complaining about “bad grammar”, we observe and describe how language is actually being used. We also don’t see changes in language as a form of decay, but an inevitable, ever-occurring process which is part and parcel of the dynamism in language. After all, the English we know today is the result of centuries of language change!
So what exactly is ELL about?
Now that some common misconceptions are out of the way, let’s start on ELL on a blank slate. Offered since 2009, H2 English Language and Linguistics (ELL) is an Arts subject that aims to develop understanding and appreciation for the English Language through the discipline of linguistics, the scientific study of language.
ELL is split up into two areas of study assessed in their respective papers. The first focuses on the internal structure of English and how it is used in particular contexts, while the second examines its usage in society.
Paper 1 deals with textual analysis and investigates how contexts affect the way the English language is used. You will also learn about the inner workings of the language at the various levels of phonology (sounds), morphology (words), syntax (sentences), semantics (literal meaning), pragmatics (intended meaning) and discourse (text). This paper is often seen to be the more technical one. It requires a keen eye for detail and the ability to spot the salient linguistic features of any given text. However, the ability to see the big picture is also crucial, since such features will only make sense when explained within a context. You will then be required to compare two texts and adapt them to different forms, ranging from pamphlets to press releases, and comment on the linguistic choices you have made.
Paper 2 on the other hand, deals with sociolinguistics, which investigates the use of language in a wider societal context. A regular complaint from our teacher is that our essays sometimes morph into GP essays. This is because Paper 2 explores a range of contemporary language issues, such as language variation in relation to gender, ethnicity and social class, how language changes, the role of English as a global language, language on the Internet, and the relationship between language, power, culture and identity. You should be prepared to do a lot of reading, as examining the various perspectives on language issues usually means stacks of readings for every lecture topic. Rest assured, however, that if you are taking the subject out of interest, the readings are usually easily conquered and may even leave you wanting more. In such a case, the Shaw Foundation Library should be able to satisfy your needs.
Some other issues
Like every other Arts subject, lessons involve 2 hours of lectures and another 2 hours of tutorials a week. However, due to the small size of the cohort, classes are all conducted in a classroom, regardless of the paper (1 or 2) or the nature of the lesson (lecture or tutorial). This facilitates class discussions even during lectures, so you can always clarify what you don’t understand. An additional perk about ELL is that the class is frequently made up of students from all over RI. It can be quite an interesting experience to have a second class.
H1 and H3 ELL are currently not being offered in RI probably because it’s a relatively new subject, but this is always subject to change in the future.
Lastly, all RI students offering ELL are eligible to apply for the English Language Elective Scholarship (ELES) which comes with a $1000 allowance per annum. This is due to the fact that RI has been selected by MOE as one of three English Language Elective Programme centers in Singapore (the others being ACJC and CJC). The application requires you to prepare a short write-up, and go for an interview if shortlisted, but not to worry – teachers will prepare you for the latter.
We hope this article has cleared up some doubts about the nebulous subject, and perhaps encouraged some of you to try it out. It is our belief that everyone has some degree of interest in language and all we hope is that your interest will be enough to motivate you to take the subject at the A levels.
How to find out more
Contact ELL tutors: Ms Audrey Tan, Mr Faizad, Ms Evelyn Teo, Ms Janissa Soh
Books on ELL: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language by David Crystal, How Language Works by George Yule