Should I Become a Linguistics Major?

Posted by Tyler Lau on 9/30/15 10:00 AM

In a previous post I explained what, exactly, linguistics is, and provided an introduction to its different branches. Now I’m asking: why should you become a linguistics major?

Reason #1: To gain a better understanding of English (or any language!)

Linguistics seeks to understand how languages work. Even just an introductory linguistics course can unravel much of the mystery and rules of language, and can enlighten you on features of the English language that you might not have even been aware of.

Here's an example:

Try saying “pair” with your hand in front of your mouth. You’ll notice that you naturally let out a puff of air after the p. This is called aspiration. Now try saying “spare” with your hand in front of your mouth. It rhymes with “pair” but you’ll notice that there’s no puff of air after the p--it’s unaspirated. Both p’s are perceived as the same by us, even though the actual sound is different. This is called allophony when two sounds underlyingly have the same representation to native speakers. In English, p, t, and k are normally aspirated but are unaspirated if they follow s. A speaker of Spanish would pronounce both p’s like the p in “spare”, without the puff of air, because Spanish has no aspirated p’s, whereas speakers of Georgian would pronounce both like the p in “pair”, with the puff of air, because Georgian has no unaspirated p’s.

Being hyper aware of rules like these will help you understand the mechanics of English, but will also prove to be very useful when learning the pronunciation and grammar of a different language.

For example, if you are learning Spanish, you probably won’t learn in school about the allophony of d, because these rules generally aren’t salient to native speakers. However, listen closely to Spanish or watch a speaker’s mouth carefully and you’ll notice that between vowels, d sounds like the th in “the” and that the speaker indeed puts their tongue between their teeth. b and g also have allophones between vowels, because they fall in the same class of sounds as d (called voiced stops).

If you know to look out for these rules, you’ll sound much more like a native speaker!

Reason #2: To explore your interests in both the sciences and the humanities

Linguistics is often mistaken as a humanities discipline because the impression is that linguists spend their time learning languages. However, closer scrutiny reveals that linguistics runs the gamut of the natural and social sciences and the humanities.

  1. Many linguists do fieldwork on endangered languages, engaging themselves in humanitarian work.
  2. Sociolinguists may look at the intersection between language, race, and class; for example, people’s attitudes about a “substandard dialect” due to its associations with the race or the class group.
  3. Historical linguists use linguistic data and triangulate with genetic, archaeological, and anthropological data to form theories about migration patterns of related groups and about prehistoric cultures.
  4. Psycholinguists run experiments to understand how the brain comprehends or respond to language, and phoneticians study the aerodynamics of breathing, the motor mechanisms of the tongue, and the physics of acoustics in order to understand how sound is actually produced and how this can lead to language universal or specific rules and change.

As you can see, linguistics cover many topics that are not restricted to either science or humanities. Taking basic linguistics classes will introduce you to a breadth of knowledge and open you to specialize in various areas. Linguists often double major with a related field;  anthropology or classics if they are more interested in the humanities side for example, or math, computer science, or statistics if they are more interested in the sciences.

Reason #3: To use both qualitative and quantitative research methods

Linguistics not only bridges the sciences and the humanities, but also spans both qualitative and quantitative methods of data collection.

Qualitative - On the qualitative side, linguists form theories based off data collection tasks such as asking people judgments about whether sentences are grammatical (can you say “I eat often vegetables”?), assessing whether they pronounce words like “cot” and “caught” the same or not, or assessing attitudes about a minority language they speak. \

Quantitative - On the quantitative side, linguists might carry out for example an eye tracking study and measure how long participants look at parts of a sentence that they are reading or use computer programming to map genetic relationships between languages with the same phylogenetic methods that evolutionary biologists use to map relationships between organisms.

By learning to use these methods through the lens of linguistics, you’ll be able to learn skills that will be useful in any field you seek to join in the future, whether it is academic or not. Especially as data is becoming more and more available, it is becoming increasingly important in every field to learn to handle and manipulate data. Learning the skills in linguistics, which is a data-heavy field, will allow you to apply them in other places.

Reason #4: To become sought after in the job market (specialize in computational linguistics!)

Computational linguists are especially popular in the industry world since programming has becoming a highly valued skill. No matter what field you go into, employers almost undoubtedly can use someone with programming skills. In particular, if you become involved in Natural Language Processing (NLP), you will become very desirable to large tech companies such as Google or Facebook, for which NLP is extremely useful for translation, social media analysis, or advertisement creation, to name a few applications.

Statistical methods are also becoming increasingly important in linguistics and are naturally important for data analysis, a skill that is also pertinent to most companies in order to assess performance or survey data, for example. The quantitative side of linguistics can be especially useful for helping you break into various industries, particularly when it is paired with knowledge of how language works as analysis of large corpora of language is crucial for companies.

Reason #5: To learn essential, transferable skills that’ll open up many career options

Linguistics is a chameleon-like discipline in that it requires you to both look at very minute details in data and at theories about the big picture. Of the 7500+ languages in the world, there is no dearth of data and working out theories to account for all the data can be daunting, but is a wonderful exercise in forming theories to unify the patterns we see. Thus, rather than blindly memorizing terms and concepts, the focus is on argumentation, synthesis, and application.

The ability to wade through data and to discover patterns in order to theorize is a skill that is transferrable to any field. While I myself went into academia, the other linguistics majors in my year went on to various fields that all found value in linguistics:

  1. Medical school, where pattern seeking is very important for the identification of ailments and diseases.
  2. Law school, where tying together evidence to form a coherent argument is a vital skill.
  3. Consulting, where analytical skills are one of the key traits that recruiters search for.
  4. The technical world, where computational skills and statistics are utilized daily.
  5. Language education, where knowledge of the mechanics of language is important for effective teaching.

Being such a wide field, choosing to become a linguistics major allows you to specialize in many different areas. Since it is also interdisciplinary and overlaps with many other fields, it also allows for a smooth transition into another field, or a highly compatible double concentration. Not to mention, since everyone has intuitions about language, you’ll learn plenty of facts in linguistics that are fun to share!

For more relevant reading, check out these other blog posts, written by our Lanugage tutors: How to Learn (and Retain) Foreign Language Vocab, How to Learn a New Language, Why Should I Study Latin?Looking to work with Tyler Lau? Feel free to get in touch! Cambridge Coaching offers private in-person tutoring in New York City and Boston, and online tutoring around the world.

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Tags: language learning