How to Read a Linguistics Article in 8 Easy Steps

Disclaimer: this mostly applies to experimental or quantitative articles, since those are what are common in my field. Your milage, especially in more formal fields like syntax or semantics, may vary dramatically.


Ok, so you’re not a professional linguist or anything, but you’ve come across an article in a linguistics journal and it sounds interesting. Or maybe you’ve just taken your first linguistics class and you heard about something really cool you want to learn more about. But when you start reading you’re quickly swamped by terms you don’t understand, IPA symbols you’ve never seen before and all sorts of statistics. You’re tempted to just throw in the towel.

Don’t panic! I’m here to help you out with Rachael’s patented* guide to reading linguistics articles.

The first thing to do is take a deep breath and accept that you may not understand everything right away. That’s ok! If you could easily read scientific literature in a field it would mean you were already an expert. Academic writing is designed to be read by other academics, and so it’s full of terms that have very specific meanings in the field. It’s a sort of time-saving code and it takes time to learn. Don’t beat yourself up for being at the beginning of your journey!

With that in mind, here’s the steps I like to follow when I’m starting a new article, especially if it’s in a field I’m less familiar with.

  1. Read the abstract. This will give you a broad outline of what the paper will be about and help you know if the whole article would be interesting or relevant for you.
  2. I like to call this the “sandwich step”. I read the introduction and then the conclusion. Why? Again, this gives me idea about what will be in the article. Sure, there may be spoilers, but knowing the answer will make it easier to understand how questions were asked.

Notice any new terms that are both in the introduction and the abstract but don’t get explained? This might be a good time to look them up, since the author might be assuming you already know about it.

Some places to look up terms:

  • The SIL linguistics glossary can be a good place to start.
  • Linguistics topics on Wikipedia are also a good choice. Linguists even get together at professional events to edit and add to linguistics-related pages.
  • For a bit more in-depth introduction, Language and Linguistics Compass publishes short articles written by experts that are designed to be introductions to whatever topic they’re on.

       3.Flip through and look for any charts or figures and read their captions. These will be where the author(s) highlight their results. Now that you have a general idea about what’s going on you’ll have a better chance of interpreting these.

       4.Next, read the background section. This is where the author will talk about things that other people have done and how thier work fits in to the big picture of the field. This is the second place you’re likely to find new terms you’re unfamiliar with. If they’re only used once or twice, don’t worry about looking them up. Your aim is to understand the general thrust of the article, not every little detail! (Now, if you’re a grad student, on the other hand… ? )

       5.Now read the methods section. You can probably skim this; unless you’re interested in replicating the study or reviewing its merit you’re not going to have to have a full grasp of all the nitty-gritty nuances of item design and participant recruitment.

       6.Finally read the results. Unless you have some stats background, you’re probably safe in skipping over the statistical analyses. Again, you just want to understand the general point.

       7.Extra credit: Go back and read the abstract again. This is a very condensed version of what was in the article and is a good way to review/check your understanding.

       8.Sit back and enjoy having read a linguistics article!

Grats on making it through! Now that you’ve caught the bug, what are some ways to find more stuff to read?

  • Go find one of the articles referenced in the one you just read. Since you’re already familiar with similar work, you’ll probably have an easier time understanding the new article.
  • Or read something more recent that cites the article you’ve read. You can look up articles that cite the one you’ve read on Google Scholar, as this video explains.
  • Look up other issues of the journal your paper was in. Most journals publish in a pretty narrow range of topics so you’ll have a leg up on understanding the new articles.
  • Ask a linguist! We’re a friendly bunch and pretty responsive to e-mail. You might even see if you can find the contact info of the author(s) of the article you read to ask them for suggestions for other stuff to read.

I hope this has been helpful and piqued your interest about diving into linguistics research. Now get out there are get reading!

*Not actually patented.