Some hints for ZP candidates

Caution! Handle with care! These hints are only meant for those students who will be examined by me. Please note that my colleagues may handle some things quite differently, only indications of how things are generally done. There is no guarantee attached, although I do usually stick to these ‘rules'.

1. Procedure

General Linguistics

I usually start with questions on general linguistics, i.e. on Yule's Study of Language or any other introductory book you may have chosen), giving the student the opportunity to decide which part of language they want to discuss first (e.g. Semantics or First Language Acquisition ). I generally ask different types of questions from this particular field, some more general, some more specific, some less and some more difficult. A typical starting question would be what this area of linguistics, e.g. semantics, deals with. I may then ask you to describe different approaches to semantics and to compare them. Next, you may be asked to explain some of the terms from this area (e.g. homonym s, hyponyms , antonyms ) or to analyse some specific example (Apply the distinction conceptual/associative meaning to the word heart ), and finally there may be a question which takes us beyond the limits of the book. I would hope for this mixture of questions to give me an approximate idea of how much you know and how much you have understood. Following this, I will ask questions from another area of general linguistics, this time deciding myself on the area to be dealt with. I do not generally deal with Sign Language , Language and Machines or Language and the Brain.


If you have chosen grammar, I usually ask „real“ grammar questions. I will be less interested in exactly how your grammar book proceeds or what its approach is. Questions will generally be on one of the ‘classical' areas of grammar teaching: Tenses (esp. Future Tenses or Present Perfect vs. Past Tense), aspects (continuous vs. simple tenses), adjectives vs. adverbs, articles, or pronouns (esp. relative pronouns). The latter is probably the area I most frequently choose to discuss.

I may ask you, for example, to name different relative pronouns or to name different ways of making reference to the future, and then to explain the differences. Or I may give you very simple German sentences to translate (e.g. „Sie fliegen morgen nach Philadelphia“ or „Das ist der Kerl, von dem ich dir gestern erzählt habe“) and take this as a starting point to discuss the alternatives.

If you have chosen something other than grammar, this may not apply in exactly the same way. Probably the procedure would be approximately a mixture between this and the one for the fields of special knowledge described below.
Language History

I may choose one of two approaches, a ‘linguistic' or a ‘literary' one, or a mixture of both. If we analyse the text from a linguistic perspective, I would be interested mainly in whether you are able to identify changes which the language has undergone, i.e. to compare this text with a (hypothetical) modern version. You would be given some moments to have a look at the extract I have chosen from the text you have chosen, and then analyse it with regards to language change. What is important is for you to be able to identify different types of change, describe them and label them, e.g. “The word X, in this text, has a prefix, which it has dropped in the meantime. The modern form is Y. This is an example of a morphological change that has taken place”. Thus you can decide for yourself which parts of the text to focus on. I would only interfere if something has to be clarified or in order to draw your attention to features of the text you have not considered.

If we analyse the text from a more literary perspective, I might ask you questions about a particular character, how this character is presented in the text, how an image of this character is created in the reader's mind, etc., but also questions about the general framework, e.g. about the function of this extract within the overall text, about the title, about the general time frame and about the author, but only in so far as they are relevant to the text we are discussing.
Fields of Special Knowledge

Questions will much depend on the areas you have chosen to deal with, but generally you may be asked to say something about

  • the subject matter of the book (the title often being a good starting point) and its central idea (and perhaps one or two ideas which are subordinate to the central idea)

  • the approach of the book and the methods used

  • a critical comment on the merits of the book and its place within the overall framework of the area

Not all the five topics will be discussed, usually two or three. If two topics are discussed the likelihood is for one them (but not both) being one of the areas you have specialised in.

2. Focus

Students are often baffled by the quantity of things they have to remember for the exam. This, of course, is understandable. Even if you read the texts ten times, you would not be able to remember everything, and even if you did, you would not be able to write down everything you remember if you were asked to do this. The simple fact is that it is hard to remember what we remember, so to speak. Alan Baddeley, a British authority on memory, cites a study in which people were asked to name the capital cities of several countries. Most had trouble with the capitals of countries like Uruguay and Bulgaria, but when they were told the initial letter of the capital city, they often suddenly remembered and their success rate soared. In the exam we will give you the first letter, so to speak, and help you remember what you remember.

Anyhow, the exam is not mainly about reproducing information. We will be mainly concerned with how well you have understood what you have read, and whether you can say something coherent about it in English. That is to say, to a certain extent we will be concerned with the ‘hidden' meaning of the texts. In the literary part of the exam, for example, you may have to identify love as one of the themes of a text, a poem or a drama, although the word love is never mentioned in the text at all.

This does not mean that knowledge is irrelevant, but you will only have to know what is important. To distinguish what is important from what isn't is precisely one of your tasks. To give an example from linguistics: students are usually quite good at distinguishing the four different types of morphemes (derivational, inflectional, functional, lexical). Actually, practically all students can do this. They are less good, however, at explaining what exactly a morpheme is and to distinguish it from other concepts, and they are even less good than this when it comes to explaining what morphology is. It should be just the other way round.

3. Preparation

Take notes of what you have read after every chapter, making sure the notes are not too long (I usually pencil them in at the end of the chapter in the book itself, thus obliging myself to keep them short).

Before you read a book, get a general idea of what your expectations are and of what the author sets out to do. After having read the book, check whether your expectations and the author's objectives have been fulfilled.

Long-term preparation is highly recommendable. Start early, then intensify your preparation little by little. In the week or so before the exam, take a walk, chat with your friends and drink wine – and forget about the exam.

To combat nervousness, breathe through and consider points such as these: chances are I will pass the exam - more students pass than fail the exam. Thousands of other students have been in the same situation. If there is a question which I cannot answer, I can still pass the exam. The exam is only one of several exams which I am to take at university, and not the most important one. I have given my best, and this in itself is a merit. If I fail, I can still try again, and next time I will have a clearer idea of what is expected of me. Within the framework of my entire life, this exam is of importance, but only of relative importance. There are more important things in life than passing university exams.

4. Marks

Contrary to what rumours have, I do not ‘fail every second student'. The failure rate, over the years, has been considerably below 20%, with some fluctuation between the different exam periods. The marks my examinees received for the linguistics part of the exam in the most recent exam period, with a failure rate above the usual average, were these: 4-2-3-5-3-5-3-4-4-3-3-4-3-2-2-5-4-5-4-4-5-3-4.