One misconception about a Linguistics major is that being a Linguist means you speak a lot of languages. While many linguists have learned to speak many languages through their fieldwork, a person who speaks many languages is a polyglot, not a linguist!
So, what exactly do Linguistics majors study, and why does it matter?
Linguistics is the scientific study of language, how it works, how it is acquired, and how people use it to communicate and interact. Because human history, knowledge, and perceptions are captured and expressed in language, studying Linguistics also allows us a specific window to understand how people, both individually and collectively, think and why they behave the ways they do.
Language informs us about history and traditions. For example, the Chinese character “male” is a combination of two characters, “field” and “work/effort”. This informs us that in Chinese tradition, men are expected to labor in the fields. Similarly, the character “abandon” is a combination of several symbols: an upside-down son, a broom, and two hands pushing the broom. This, too, informs us about the opinion ancient Chinese traditions hold about rebellious children.
Language also shapes and explains how people perceive their environments. For example, the word “bridge” is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. Hence when you ask a German native speaker what he/she thinks about a bridge, you are more likely than not to hear adjectives like “beautiful”, “slender”, and “elegant”. On the other hand, a Spanish native-speaker would tend to use terms like “big”, “strong”, and “long” to describe the masculine bridge.
In short, Linguistics helps us understand our world! Besides simply understanding the intricacies of different languages, we can apply this knowledge to improve communication between people and in fields like Cognitive Science, Psychology, Philosophy, Anthropology, and Computer Science, creating a more fair and compassionate society.
So, what opportunities would I have with a Linguistic degree?
Like all scientists, a Linguistics major possesses intellectual abilities such as analytical reasoning, critical thinking, and good communication skills (clearly!). They make insightful observations, devise hypotheses that can be quantitatively examined, utilize data to support arguments, produce scientific conclusions, and properly articulate their findings to the public. As a result, Linguistics majors are well-equipped to work in a wide range of graduate programs and careers. The followings are academic and career opportunities Linguistics majors may enjoy:
- Graduate/PhD programs in fields like Linguistics, Cognitive Science, Psychology, Computer Science, Anthropology, Philosophy, Education, and Language Studies
- Professional programs in areas like Law, Speech Pathology, Communication Disorders, and Information Science
a. AI Technology: Focusing on areas such as speech recognition, AI translators, and word search. Since language is human being’s most natural means of communication, linguistically competent computers can simplify human interactions with various machines and software. Imagine having an AI that can understand and provide us with what we need even when our requests do not contain “all the correct keywords”!
b. Publication industry or journalism: As editors, publishers, and writers
c. Law or language consultancy: the subfield of forensic linguistics involving studying legal texts, linguistic aspects of evidence (eye-witness testimonies and interviews), voice identification, etc. In the US, law enforcement agencies such as DoD (Department of Defense), FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), CIA (Central Intelligent Agency), and NSA (National Security Agency), as well as civilian courts and law firms, all hire linguists for their specific skills.
d. Advertising or branding industry: advertising and PR firms often hire linguists to perform extensive research on associations people make with specific speech, buzzwords, and sounds to create messages that appeal to potential customers (or voters).
e. In academia: people with Linguistics training and backgrounds are undoubtedly capable of developing tailored teaching materials for different populations. Of course, Linguistics majors with graduate degrees are qualified to teach or lead research in various fields such as Linguistics, Cognitive Science, Psychology, Computer Science, Anthropology, and Philosophy.
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By Ally Ip, Director of Research