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What is linguistics and why study it?

Have you ever wondered why we say "feet" rather than "foots"? Or what we do with our mouths to make a b sound different from a p? Or why we rarely say what we actually mean? It's questions like these that intrigue the linguist!

Many people think that a linguist is someone who speaks many languages and works as a language teacher or as an interpreter at the United Nations. In fact, these people are more accurately called "Polyglots". While many linguists are polyglots, the focus of linguistics is about the structure, use and psychology of language in general.

Linguistics is concerned with the nature of language and communication. It deals both with the study of particular languages, and the search for general properties common to all languages or large groups of languages. It includes the following subareas :

  • phonetics (the study of the production, acoustics and hearing of speech sounds)
  • phonology (the patterning of sounds)
  • morphology (the structure of words)
  • syntax (the structure of sentences)
  • semantics (meaning)
  • pragmatics (language in context)

It also includes explorations into the nature of language variation (i. e., dialects), language change over time, how language is processed and stored in the brain, and how it is acquired by young children. All of these topics are examined in the coursework offered by the University of Arizona's Department of Linguistics.

Although linguistics is still largely unfamiliar to the educated public, it is a growing and exciting field, with an increasingly important impact on other fields as diverse as psychology, philosophy, education, language teaching, sociology, anthropology, computer science, and artificial intelligence.

A student with an interest in linguistics can choose among several different career paths. Some of these are listed below. Note that different career paths will benefit from different course concentrations, so it's a good idea to consult with the undergraduate advisor when choosing courses.

Careers with a B.A. in Linguistics only

  • Receive a B.A. in Linguistics and teach English in a foreign country. Many of our students pursue teaching in countries such as Russia or Japan.
  • Receive a B.A. in Linguistics, coupled with excellent multilingual skills, and work as a translator. For example, translators of American Sign Language are in demand in many places in the U.S.
  • Receive a B.A. in Linguistics, coupled with a concentration of courses in computer science, and obtain a position in a company like Macintosh, IBM or Microsoft creating computers that can comprehend and produce human languages. For example, many new search engines work on the basis of natural languages. In recent years, the demand for people with such backgrounds has exploded, and linguists are in high demand.

 Careers with a B.A. in Linguistics Plus 2-3 Years of Additional Graduate Training

  • Receive a B.A. in Linguistics and go on for a Masters degree in education in order to teach English as a second language in the U.S. or to teach a foreign language in an American school.
  • Receive a B.A. in Linguistics and go on for a graduate degree in another field. For example, many of our graduates in recent years have gone on to law school. Linguistics teaches excellent analytic and writing skills needed in fields like law and journalism.

Careers with a B.A. in Linguistics Plus 4-5 Years of Additional Graduate Training

  • Receive a B.A. in Linguistics and go on for a Ph.D. in Linguistics in order to teach at a college or university or to work in language-related industry (e.g., editing, software development).
  • Receive a B.A. in Linguistics, coupled with courses in computer sciences, philosophy or psychology, and go on for a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science in order to teach at a college or university or to work in industry on problems involving language and artificial intelligence.

Click here to read an article from the Wall Street Journal about careers for people with linguistics degrees

Click here to read a CNN article about jobs and linguistics.