Both Papers 3 and 4 in the A-level English language course by Cambridge push the students into the realm of linguistics yet look at different topics from different angles. In this overview, introductory article I am going to briefly describe the main features of the tasks and how to approach them.
Everything starts with Language Change. It’s the newest component of the course, introduced only in 2021 which leads to a number of issues. First of all, materials. At the end of the post, I’ll share some official additional resources for preparation, but the main issue is that going with a traditional do-past-papers way is not really possible just because there are not so many past papers available. In general, you’ll get a text written in Early Modern or very modern (= sample of an online text) English. On top of that two ‘texts’ are provided which in practice are a table with examples from the Language Corpus and an n-gram. The idea behind is that if you were doing your research at home, you’d go and google the extra data yourself. Since it is not possible in exam conditions, exam creators kindly provided all the necessary materials.
Question two: Child Language Acquisition. You get a script of a kid (or a few kids) talking to a caretaker(s). As you bonus, you also receive a transcription key which is a newer addition to help students decipher those few samples of mispronounced words or phrases. The kids are usually between three and seven. Curious combinations of two siblings of very different age and their relatives are common. Once in a while you can get two short scripts, but it’s more common for children of younger age.
As stated at the top of the question paper, the main aspect checked in Paper 3 is how well the students can analyse the language. In other words, when answering, you will have to be very technical and at all times refer to specific language-related details from the texts provided. This requirement is clearly reflected in the mark schemes even though they vary from from question to question.
Combining two different at the first glance topics in one paper makes perfect sense as the questions are similar in their nature and while in language change you look at, well, language change on a global scale, in Child language acquisition you focus again on the language change but now on a scale of one tiny human who is yet to master the most taken-for-granted skill humans possess.
With the time allocated for both questions, there is no luxury of building up your response structure from scratch or figuring out whether you need theories or how to connect an abstract theory with whatever Cambridge has picked for your exam.
Below you can find a few general tips which would allow you to save time if you put them in practice while preparing for the exam.
- If Cambridge bothered to do something special with that word/phrase, it was worth their time and, therefore, it is worth commenting.
For example, if in Question 2 they meticulously put the symbols to help you understand the prosodic features of that specific chunk, there must be something to talk about. If in Question 1 they offered you an n-gram with three options with the only difference in capitalisation – this is something to look closer at.
- Focus on the language.
You can be a specialist in the historical changes in the English Language from its beginnings and have a lot to say about the neurological processes behind language acquisition, but is it relevant to this specific script you have? If not, don’t waste your time. If yes, make sure to walk the reader through providing all the necessary examples from the texts.
- Be specific. Very specific.
I mentioned that the responses should be technical meaning that the descriptions of language samples must be precise. If you are still not very confident when it comes to parts of speech, I have bad news: now you need not just a part of speech, but know the difference between subject and object pronouns, know your modal verbs from auxiliary verbs and distinguish the latter ones from same verbs in their main meaning as action verbs. What question types do you know? Or just sentence types in general?
Spotting a mistake in Question 2 is important, but just saying that it’s wrong is barely the first step of a pretty long way where you clearly identify what exactly went wrong, try tracking down the source of the mistake (hopefully with a suitable theory at hand). The task is not to correct the mistakes, but to show what happens in the context of Child Language Acquisition. Same in Language Change: not just that we don’t say this anymore. What exactly changed? possible reasons? maybe texts B and C might help?
To sum it up, label whatever you talk about in a specific manner but don’t stop there.
- Make sure that you comment on something from all language systems.
Students tend to focus a lot on lexis as this is the most convenient level of language: it’s easier to spot and it’s pretty compact. However, apart from that aspect make sure to include syntax (it is a must and there is always something to say about it), graphology and spelling in Question 1 and phonetics in Question 2. Morphology usually is considered within lexis but, at least in Language Change, it’s definitely worth bringing up as a separate aspect.
The most forgotten and disregarded aspect is pragmatics. The quickest way to approach the topic is to look at the text and think if all phrases are suitable nowadays/in a talk among adults. If something is off – mention changes in society or technology, political correctness, how communication includes not only the language itself but also cultural norms we apply (what we can discuss with whom and in what way).
Below you can find some great official materials which, somehow, are often overlooked.
An absolute favourite, especially for revision before the main exam session starts:
Cambridge International AS and A Level English Language Exam Preparation and Practice
Personally, I mostly use it for practice as extra past papers. My students say that the level is harder than in usual published past papers, but I wouldn’t necessarily say so.
Cambridge Topics in English Language
From the official website: Cambridge Topics in English Language is a series of accessible introductory study guides to major scholarly topics in the fields of English linguistics and stylistics, suitable for students at advanced level and beyond. Written and edited by subject experts and with input from the Cambridge Corpus, the titles look at the way meaning is made using authentic real-world written and spoken examples, supporting confident analysis and articulate responses.
Great for extra practice, additional materials and what is expected as the wider study in the mark schemes.