What is Linguistics?
Linguistics is the study of the structure of language.
Often students are first drawn to study linguistics because of the rich connections of linguistics with other disciplines, and with everyday life. For example, students of anthropology, psychology, and even computer science often find that their course of study touches on language in a significant way. On a more personal level, sometimes it is a not-so-academic interest that excites a person’s curiosity about linguistics. For example, a student with an interest in exotic travel may decide to learn more about why languages are so different across the globe, or a student who follows current events and debates about “proper” English or English-only laws may want to learn about language and grammar to better understand the issues related to these topics.
Why study Linguistics?
Linguists study language because they find it interesting in its own right. Language is a complex cognitive and social phenomenon. It is a product of the human mind, yet it requires rich social input in order to be learned properly. Understanding one’s own language is effortless but understanding a foreign language that you’ve never heard before is impossible. How is it that the human mind can turn particular strings of sounds into such a rich stream of information? Why are languages around the world so different, but yet upon closer inspection turn out to have so much in common? Why is it easy to learn a language as a baby, but hard to learn it as an adult? These are just some of the questions that linguistics seeks to answer.
It turns out that the study of language, like other fields of empirical research, yields dividends beyond its own domain. Modern work in linguistics has had a profound impact on many fields where language is central: psychology, cognitive science, computer science, philosophy, the study of individual languages, literary theory, and anthropology. Students of linguistics can focus closely on language and its empirical phenomena through the study of syntax, semantics, or phonology, and they can also explore the many cross-disciplinary connections between linguistics and other fields.
Careers in Linguistics
For information about the careers that a major or minor in linguistics can prepare you for, see the Linguistic Society of America's FAQ, co-authored by Prof. Kristen Syrett.
There are numerous career paths a linguistics major might pursue. Some core areas are
- Basic research at universities like Rutgers and at research centers such as the RUCCS.
- Computer industry: Applying computer related skills to language. Building machines that can understand human speech, produce speech, as well as computer programs that automatically translate and check grammar.
- Psychology: Applying methodologies of psychology to linguistic behavior. These include the study and treatment of language impairment, experiments focussed on a child's acquisition of language and research into understanding how linguistic knowledge is stored in the brain. If this interests you, you might want to have a look at what is happening at some psychology of language labs and programs. Research of this type goes on at Rutgers in the Center for Cognitive Science and in the Psychology Department .
- Speech Pathology and Audiology
- Foreign language teaching and translation.
- Designing educational materials for language instruction.
- Forensic Linguistics
The skills developed in the study of linguistics (attention to detail, developing hypotheses and testing them, analytic reasoning) serve as good foundation for various fields including law, teaching, publishing, technical writing, library science, editing and others.
Information about current career opportunities can be found at the Jobs section of The Linguist List.
For general information about majoring in linguistics, see the Linguistic Society of America's brochure.