We use speech and communication every day. But have you ever stopped to think about language, how it functions, and how it allows billions all over the world to communicate? This is where the fascinating, wide-ranging field of linguistics comes in.
Linguistics is the science of language. It involves the formal study of grammar, syntax, phonetics, and is fundamentally concerned with the relationship between sound and meaning. Therefore, although it does branch off into studies of the written word, its central focus is on language as a verbal phenomenon. After all, verbal communication appears to be universal to all human cultures, suggesting we are hardwired (or at least strongly predisposed) to developing and mimicking speech. This is a theory advocated by many psychologists and social scientists, including Harvard professor Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. Linguistics examines the way we acquire language, how that language is structured, how it varies from culture to culture, and, perhaps most importantly, how language shapes individual consciousness.
Linguistics is predicated on the idea that language does not merely tell us about the world, but constructs our very idea of it. Language is the thing that makes us self-aware; it's what makes us ‘human’. This idea was a significant turning point in early 20th-century linguistic theory, namely in the works of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson. It went on to influence many of the post-structuralist thinkers whose work forms a central part of humanities and social sciences curriculums in all the major universities. This inspired generations of students to question existing cultural values, which led to the emergence of whole new academic subjects, including gender studies, critical race theory, postcolonial studies, and queer theory. In a sense, linguistics kickstarted a debate about the ownership of meaning and power which is set to continue for a very long time.
As we can see, linguistics has some very real-world consequences. In fact, some would even argue that the ‘real world’ is only possible through linguistics. But whatever way you look at it, this is one of the subjects that seems to tell us the most about ourselves and our cultures. Moreover, it has many practical uses; successful companies and other essential organizations are always on the lookout for people who understand the science of communication. So if you thought of linguistics as a dry, obscure, or purely academic subject, then think again. Linguistic graduates have a wide variety of exciting career opportunities, including jobs in cutting-edge industries such as artificial intelligence and computational linguistics.
Here are four careers options for linguistic students.
Computing and tech
Have you ever wondered how Siri learned to speak? Or how Google Translate learned Spanish? What about autocorrect on your iPhone; how does it always seem to know what you want to write next? Well, if any of these ideas have crossed your mind, then you’ve inadvertently stumbled upon the interesting field of computational linguistics. This interdisciplinary field combines traditional linguistics with computer science to create natural Natural Language Processing (NLP) algorithms that enable a dialogue between humans and machines.
Siri and similar technologies don’t need to understand what you’re saying, but they certainly need to know why. If you ask Siri to set the alarm for 7am, the fact that you’ve got an early flight booked is irrelevant -- all Siri needs to do is link certain phrases to specific actions. Simple enough? Well, not really. And this is because there are several ways to frame any sentence. For example:
Hey Siri, can you set me an alarm for 7 am tomorrow?
Siri, can you wake me up tomorrow at 7 am?
Siri, please set an alarm for tomorrow at 7 am.
Siri, please wake me up tomorrow at 7 am.
The NLP algorithms ensure Siri understands all possible versions of a request in over 21 languages, and advanced machine learning (AI) means such technologies will soon be able to decipher language in a way approaching the way us humans do. If you heard someone say, set me an alarm tomorrow at 7am, it would only take an extra second for you to figure out the request, despite the jumbled up syntax. But if they said, tomorrow set me an alarm at 7 am, you'd need to ask a few more questions. Such formulations may confuse these machines for now, but thanks to the work of computational linguists, it might not be too long before we struggle to spot the difference between a human and a machine voice.
Allie Cook started college life as a French language major. However, after taking a course called Language in Life, she switched majors at UC Santa Barbara and became a full-time linguistics student. She said, “I was inspired to pick linguistics because there are endless opportunities that can come out of it. There is such a wide variety of topics discussed that I am never bored."
After graduation, Allie has plans to do a master’s degree and eventually become a speech pathologist. Along with fields such as occupational health, audiology, and physical therapy, speech-language pathology (SLP) is a related health profession, meaning you can qualify without spending an extra five years at medical school. Speech-language pathologists specialize in diagnosing, preventing, and treating a wide variety of speech-related disorders, such as aphasia, apraxia, and dysarthria. They work with all types of patent, including young children struggling with development, hearing loss, or autism spectrum disorders. Alternatively, they help elderly patients suffering from the effects of a recent stroke or those who are managing degenerative conditions like Alzheimers or dementia.
SLPs can work in public and private hospitals, care homes, mental health facilities, or as part of community health teams or outreach programs. Others work in specialist schools or higher education institutes to support students with communication issues. SLPs also form a vital part of offender rehabilitation programs and the justice system. They encourage offenders to develop more effective communication skills, as well as supporting young offenders during legal proceedings, which ensures they receive a fair and balanced hearing within the courtroom.
With a little more training, linguists can move into translation and interpretation roles. Interpreters facilitate verbal communication between two people who speak different languages, while translators work more with legal documents and other forms of written communication. Both roles are highly valued by big businesses involved in international commerce, tech companies looking to create more inclusive products or services, and government organizations, including the military, civil service, schools, courtrooms, or social services. Those working in the public sector often provide a crucial link between members of immigrant communities and the government bodies that facilitate their integration into the wider society. Without such services, these recent arrivals are at risk of increasing isolation and possible exploitation.
Additional career options in language services include translating works of fiction and non-fiction into different languages, subtitling foreign language films or TV programs, or working for a large publishing house or production company. Some linguists have even had a chance to create entirely new languages. David J. Pearson, a linguist and member of the Language Creation Society, created the Dothraki and Valyrian languages for HBO's smash hit show Game of Thrones.
Jobs at the very highest level
If you would like to walk along the corridors of power, then a linguistics degree could be your way of getting a foot through the first door. Organizations at the highest level of government are always on the lookout for talented linguistics, and you could soon find yourself working in a foreign embassy facilitating discussions with significant national and international consequences.
Or would you prefer to operate in the shadowy and intriguing world of international espionage and intelligence gathering? If so, organizations like the FBI and the CIA regularly advertise for the very best linguists. Language experts work at all levels of the intelligence community. They help security services identify potential threats, assist in negotiations with potential allies, win over the hearts and minds of local communities, and generally protect the public from terrorist attacks or foreign subterfuge.
The CIA requires language professionals with a deep understanding of languages spoken around the world, although the current geopolitical climate means those who understand Arabic, Chinese, Mandarin, Korean, Farsi, and Russian will often go straight to the top of recruiters' lists.
This is just a small selection of the career paths open to qualified linguists. After all, linguistics is about communication, and communication is perhaps the most important part of any collective human endeavor.