So you want to be a linguistics major? Good for you! You’re on track to land one of many very cool linguistics jobs.
This post includes information about 1) the typical linguistics program at the undergraduate level and 2) what you can do with a linguistics major (jump right to the section about jobs). In addition to the facts and figures, I’ve thrown in some personal insights that I hope provide some value.
If you find this post helpful, then share it or drop me a line in the comments!
So You Want to Be a Linguistics Major
A linguistics major on a college campus is about as common as a four-leaf clover in a field.
In fact, linguistics as an undergraduate major ranks 143 out of the 200 most popular degree programs in the U.S.—right behind real estate and just ahead of molecular biology.
In other words, when you’re a linguistics major, you’re a member of a pretty small club.
But what a club it is! Do you think your peers in accounting or law have ever heard of hyponymy or a velar fricative? Of course they haven’t! They’re too busy interviewing with big corporations in their junior year…
While Fortune 500 companies probably won’t be recruiting you in your senior year because you know about the Great Vowel Shift, a linguistics major serves as a solid foundation in analysis, interpretation, and writing.
The Undergrad Coursework of a Linguistics Major
A linguistics major includes coursework in the pillars of language: its form, its meaning, and its use. A typical undergraduate will study syntax, semantics, and morphology, as well as phonetics and phonology.
- syntax—the composition of phrases and sentences
- semantics—the study of meaning in words and structures
- morphology—the composition of words
- phonetics—classification of speech sounds
- phonology—how speech sounds are organized and used
In addition to these courses, a linguistics major may also involve courses in language change, field methods, computational linguistics, etymology (word origin), language acquisition, and sociolinguistics.
Undergrad Programs in Linguistics
While degree programs in linguistics have significant overlap, no two programs are identical. See below for links to 5 universities that offer linguistics programs.
- University of Pennsylvania
- New York University
- Georgetown University
- University of Michigan
- Ohio State University
Thankfully, linguists do not have to say the phrase linguistics jobs 10 times fast. (It’s worse than “toy boat”!)
So what can you do with your degree? Well, it all depends on just how much training you have.
If you “only” have a B.A. in linguistics, then you’ll have fewer lucrative options than if you had a master’s or a PhD. (Of course, this is true for many fields.)
If you want to teach a foreign language or ESL in primary or secondary schools, your background as a linguist will be helpful. Of course, you have to be highly proficient in your second language and you will need a teaching credential.
A graduate degree lets you teach at the university level. This could be in linguistics or in a related discipline (anthropology, computer science, psychology).
Linguists are experts at analyzing language. Intelligence agencies do a lot of analysis and therefore love linguists.
The CIA, FBI, NSA, and State Department all have a need for linguists. The job security is great, the pay can be quite good, and the work is interesting. (I say this as a former linguist contractor for the FBI.)
As of this writing, the CIA, for example, was offering annual pay between $63,000 and $84,000 to teachers of foreign languages.
I don’t want to say that it’s easy to get language work with the federal government. But it’s a huge employer with tons of opportunities for people who don’t mind being escorted to the restroom before they have their security clearance.
Linguists can look for full-time positions with the CIA and FBI, while freelance translators and interpreters can apply to work for the State Department.
“Hold on,” you’re saying to yourself. “No private company would ever hire an expert in ditransitive verbs.”
Well, you may be right about that. But companies do hire linguists!
Take Nuance, the maker of the voice-recognition software Dragon. Who do you think did all of the R&D work? If you answered “a linguist,” you’re right! (Actually, it was probably a small army of linguists and computer scientists…)
In fact, one vacancy on Nuance’s site is for a research scientist in language modeling. The education level required to apply? Advanced degree (PhD) in computer science, computational linguistics, applied mathematics, or a related field. (Emphasis mine.)
What’s more, large technology and social media companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter have language departments. You didn’t think that Google could digitize a gazillion books without an expert in corpus linguistics on staff, did you?
From dictionaries to educational materials, linguists are needed to produce, check, and revise a wide array of printed content.
While a lexicographer is a highly trained linguist, a linguist with less training may write ESL tests for a textbook publisher, for example.
You know how a good company tagline gets into your head? You can thank a linguist (or at least someone who knows a lot about language).
As a linguist, you may end up doing research for a company that will pay you big bucks to figure out whether potential buyers prefer wording A to wording B. (I like to think that the slogans I like it very much and I’m really likin’ it were good candidates until McDonald’s finally settled on I’m lovin’ it.)
One of the coolest linguistics jobs out there has to be voice coach. (Well, it would be for me anyway—I like putting on accents and I like movies. Where do I sign up?)
If you’re ever in the mood for a gut-wrenchingly sad movie, then I recommend Sophie’s Choice, in which a Polish woman is forced to make a terrible choice.
But that’s no Polish woman! That’s American actress Meryl Streep doing an amazing Polish accent.
Do you know how she did it? She hired a voice coach from Berlitz. Linguists who specialize in the phonetics of foreign languages, here’s your calling!
A Final Word for the Future Linguistics Major
If you do decide to major in linguistics, then I will tip my hat to you. It’s not as common a field of study as business or nursing, of course. But the study of language is very satisfying.
My own path? I majored in French and did graduate work in translation. Now I run a company that hires applied linguists who specialize in the transfer of meaning from one language to another—or, as they’re more commonly known, translators.
“Linguistics,” National Center for Education Statistics.
“Popular College Degrees and Programs,” MatchCollege.com
“Why Major in Linguistics?” Linguistic Society of America.
Do you know someone who’s thinking about a linguistics major or wants to know about linguistics jobs? Then share this post!
You can also see our articles on learning another language, why knowing a second language is important, and how to curse in French. (This last one isn’t for the faint of heart.)