Oxford Linguistics: Tips & Questions for Interview

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This guide covers the best preparation tips for your Oxford Linguistics Interview, including past Oxford Linguistics questions, interview tips, mock examples and real experiences from students who have sat the Oxford Linguistics interview.

What is the Oxford Linguistics Interview structure?

Students can only study Linguistics at Oxford as part of a joint honours degree with another subject. This could be Modern Languages and Linguistics (MLL). Alternatively, you can choose Philosophy, Psychology and Linguistics (PPL), in which case you will have chosen one of Psychology or Philosophy to study Linguistics alongside. Joint honours courses tend to divide their interviews by subject, so you’ll have one or two interviews for Linguistics, and one or two interviews for your other subject. The structure for the interview will be very similar regardless of your subject combination.

What are the Oxford Linguistics interview dates?

First interviews for MLL and PPL will take place at the beginning of December. If admissions tutors invite you to a second interview, you’ll be told about this soon after your interview. These second interviews will commence in the middle of December. 

You can find further information on the Oxford Linguistics application process on the University of Oxford website.

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Example Past Questions from Oxford Linguistics Interview

  • Exploring grammar and syntax: One of the tutors posed as someone learning English, gave me a simple sentence, and asked me to explain how to change the word order to transform it into a question. I had to devise rules for how to modify the phrasing. For each one, the tutor gave an example of a different sentence to which the rule would not apply. I then had to reevaluate the rules I’d given to adapt to this.
  • Unknown Language: The tutors gave me a list of words or phrases in an uncommon language I was unfamiliar with, with translations of each word or phrase in English besides. They asked me to pick apart these words to identify different morphemes, and what they may correlate to in English. For example, the equivalent of ‘he’ or ‘walked’ or a past tense conjugation. I then had to use the deductions I’d made to translate a given sentence from English to the language they’d given.
  • Comparing Languages: Tutors asked me to draw comparisons between romance languages such as Latin and Spanish. They asked how I might teach someone who knows one language, the other. 

Further Examples:

  • How does language change over time, and what impact does this have on our society?
  • What role does language have to play in reducing equality?
  • Should we abolish the apostrophe?
  • Can you only truly understand a text in its original language?
  • Which part of linguistics interest you the most?
  • Discussion of books – please refer to Oxford’s recommended book list 
  • Why do you wish to study at Oxford?
  • What do you know about the linguistics course at Oxford?
  • Some applicants have been asked to do a little test before the Oxford Linguistics interview. This involved comparing minimal pairs in an unknown language to understand and extrapolate the meaning of individual words. 
  • Asked specific questions about linguistics in the language you study. For example, if you study French, they could discuss issues in French linguistics such as the subjunctive. 
  • Analysing English Grammar – the interviewer asks you to analyse some English sentences. You can read by yourself first, and then you discuss it with the interviewer. The techniques discussed included common techniques for language puzzles – e.g. systematise, organise, find commonalities, and explain.

Above is an example of a linguistics interview from Oxford’s YouTube channel. It is a great video to see how an interview may be structured. 

Insider Guides: Oxford Linguistics Interview

What happens on the day of your Oxford Linguistics interview?

For my Oxford Linguistics interviews, I was sent a link to a Microsoft Teams meeting prior to its beginning, and joined at the allocated time. I had interviews with two different colleges: Somerville had student volunteers to welcome me and answer questions before the interview began. St Hugh’s began the interview straight away. 

What do you have to bring to your Oxford Linguistics interview?

I had a pen and notepad on the table beside me, but didn’t end up needing it. I wore a simple outfit that looked smart but not too formal, was comfortable, and wouldn’t distract me during the interview.

What is the interview setting and how long is it?

The interview took place on Microsoft Teams, with cameras and microphones on. Some of the interviewers had blurred their backgrounds, though some had a plain wall behind them. I made sure my background was clear and simple, with nothing identifiable or distracting, and was well-lit. All of my interviewers were lovely and reassuring, and eased my nerves very quickly. Some of them were more openly kind than others, while some kept quieter and were harder to read their reactions to what I said.

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    What are the Oxford Linguistics interviewers like? 

    They were all kind and reassuring. They know how nerve-wracking it is to take part in an interview like this, and they want to put you at ease so that you’re able to perform your best! Some of them may give you more of a reaction than others, but no reaction by no means suggests that you’re doing badly. Try not to worry about how the tutors are reacting to you. Their expression isn’t always an accurate representation of what they’re thinking.

    What are the best tips for planning my trip for my Oxford Linguistics interview?

    The Oxford Linguistics interviews may be online this year, so you won’t need to worry about travel or accommodation. If so, the interviews will place on Microsoft Teams, and you’ll be sent a link in plenty of time before the interview. Make sure to check your spam and junk folders, and always email the college to check if you think you’re missing anything you need. Make sure you set up a space around you that’s simple and professional, with good lighting and in a space that you won’t be distracted by any other family members or pets.

    Are there any academic or challenging Linguistics questions at the Oxford interview?

    The questions are designed to challenge you, rather than test any specific knowledge that you may have learnt in A-Level English Language. The tutors are aware that not everyone has an equal background in the subject. They will give you questions that are designed to see how well you respond to new stimuli. They won’t ask you about specific linguistic theories, since not everyone might be aware of them. Instead, they’ll give you broader questions about the concepts, such as asking your opinion on whether or not there’s a ‘golden standard’ of English. They’ll then ask you to consider what implications this might have on people from different social groups.

    Are there any personality, work experience or extracurricular based questions at the Oxford Linguistics interview? 

    Not everyone is asked questions on their personal statement or work experience during Linguistics interviews, since they focus much more on understanding how you think and can express your thought processes. If you’ve studied a language previously, for example at GCSE or A-Level, they might bring this up – don’t worry, they won’t ask you to speak to them in your rusty French you haven’t touched in two years! They may instead ask you to consider how languages can vary or link to one another, and how knowing one language could make it easier to understand another.

    Top Tips for the Oxford Linguistics Interview

    1. Make observations from the world around you.

    The great thing about linguistics is that there’s examples of language everywhere you go, in every conversation – try paying attention to how you communicate with different people in different contexts, and how language affects the way in which you or others are perceived.

    2. Read about what you’re interested in.

    Since you’re signing up to study Linguistics for three or more years, it shouldn’t be a chore to do your research into the subject – it should interest you enough to motivate you to want to learn more, and to explore topics that you care about or want to know about in more detail.

    3. Discuss your interests with friends and family.

    You’ll feel much less awkward in an interview setting if you’ve got accustomed to talking about Linguistics in everyday life. It’s one thing knowing a lot about the subject, but this won’t help you at all unless you’re able to talk fluently about it, use relevant terminology to the field, and communicate your ideas in a clear and meaningful manner.

    4. Make links.

    When you reference areas of Linguistics that are personal to you, it’s easier to demonstrate your passion and love for the subject in everyday life. Perhaps you have younger siblings who you’ve watched learn to speak, and can link your experience of that to a question on child language acquisition? Or do you have a funny anecdote of a case of extreme miscommunication, that you could analyse from a linguistic perspective? Interviewers love to see you make links beyond the curriculum to support your arguments.

    5. Enjoy the experience!

    The interviews are a unique opportunity for you to discuss your subject with the highest level academics in the field of Linguistics, and you can learn some really valuable things from listening to their insight on the topics you discuss. It’s a chance to show off what you know by focusing your responses on the areas that are most comfortable and familiar to you.

    6. Don’t stress too much about knowledge.

    Oxford mentions on their website that they do not expect a very detailed knowledge of linguistics because it is not a subject which is taught in school. However they explain that it is useful for candidates to explain what spared their interest in languages they know, including any patterns that are present. 

    Still need more support with preparing for your Oxford Linguistics Interview? Check out our Oxford PPL Interview Tutoring packages for more information to help secure your place at the University of Oxford!

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