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What can you do with a degree in linguistics?

People so often assume that a linguist's job is to learn as many languages as possible, when in actuality it is not anything near that. So, let us put an end to this erroneous assumption once and for all. 

Linguists do not engage in learning languages, linguists engage in studying how language works. And when I say language, I mean human language, an umbrella term that subsumes all languages spoken by humans, including pidgins, creoles, and sign languages. Thanks to linguists the world is a better place now, many daunting problems that existed for centuries have been solved because now we have a better understanding of language and language-related issues. in this article, you will see, in full-length, the contributions of linguists to the modern world. And you are going to see that it's a disgrace to confine a linguist's job to just learning languages. 

Let me just give you some examples before we break things down in more detail. A linguist's job could involve exploring the neuroscience of how language works in the brain; the typology of how different languages achieve similar functions using different formal devices, the developmental psychology of how children language acquisition works and how it can go awry; how language ability stops working in aphasia, Alzheimer's, or due to some other dysfunction; how language works as a bidirectional human-computer interface; how language works when learned later in life in the classroom; how languages change; how language defines various social identities; how language functions in other professions, including politics, law and law enforcement; and how does one make new, working constructed languages  ( yes linguists brought you Dothraki and Valyrian). 

Actually, doing linguistics today looks more like this: 

Now let me put things in perspective for you. There are a lot of things you can do with linguistics to get paid. Let's go through the list together:

  • Research: 

Academia: Some linguists teach and do research at Universities in Linguistics departments as well as in Psychology, Speech and Hearing Sciences, Cognitive Science and Computer Science departments. Most big Universities have Linguistics departments, but many Universities don't, a dismaying fact for linguists when compared to a discipline like Psychology.

Research Scientist: In addition to research at a University, there are other organizations supporting linguistics research including the NIH (e.g., National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders), the NSF, DARPA and the Department of Veterans Affairs. In Europe there are places like the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, CNRS and BCBL - Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language that fund direct linguistics research far more generously than the US.

Corporate Research: A handful of companies (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! to some degree) invest in basic linguistics research. Much of it is focused on stuff like NLP/NLU (see below). Raytheon also has a big Speech Tech research division (Speech, Language & Multimedia).

Lexicography: Linguists are the ones that determine what goes in the dictionary and what does not go in. Pissed about literally being acceptable as simply an intensifier. Blame a linguist, but know that the decision was made based on tons of research.

  • Entertainment:

Hollywood: There are surprisingly many ways linguists can make a buck in Hollywood that doesn't involve waiting tables. There are the handful of folks (and their society, Language Creation Society) that make languages for movies and shows like Avatar and Game of Thrones, but there are also dialect coaches and linguistic consultants for shows that attempt to have some sort of historical accuracy in the language spoken.

Linguistics Pundit: Many big papers have some sort of On Language type column and a few magazines, too. Linguists or pseudo-linguists (e.g., William Safire) write these columns, generally to the delight of prescriptive grammar nerds. Then there are folks like Deborah Tannen who also happens to be an academic, who are in the public eye talking about how we talk to each other.

  • High Tech: 

Localization: As companies become more and more global, more and more expertise is needed in taking some product suited for some nation and moving it to another language and culture. Many companies, including Google (e.g., Google Localization Specialist Jobs) hire linguists to help them set up a web presence in some new locale.

Natural Language Processing: We interact with computers a lot these days and it sure would be great to do so by just talking. Some day soon we might be able to. Supposedly the xbox one will have a pretty solid natural language understanding interface and Siri and Google Glass depend on this sort of technology, too. While generally CS-heavy, it is often developed through a combination of computer science and linguistics. Things like automated language translation come in to play here, too.

Semantic Analysis/Big Data: What's the word on twitter about PRISM (NSA surveillance program)? How do the folks on Quora feel about Justin Bieber (musician)? Figuring out how to sift through the vast amount of big data that is natural language data takes computer science, statistics and linguistics. And presumably PRISM itself involves some decent amount of linguistic sophistication - I'm sure NSA is hiring (Intern Program at the National Security Agency)!

Document Management: We have a lot of documents these days. Corporations have a lot more. Linguists can help create automated systems that make sense of your documents, get the gist of what they're about and organize and retrieve them when necessary.

Language Testing: There are two routes you can go here. First are companies that do language proficiency testing, and in particular, there's a move towards doing automated phone-based testing. An obvious application would be to score the English ability and accent for applicants to a call center. You can also work on figuring out how to test native speaker's ability in their native language. Companies here include Pearson and ETS.

  • Linguistics in other fields: 

Forensic Linguistics: There are many experts in this field.  Joe Devney is one such example (e.g., For what legal cases have linguistics played a big role?). Linguists can be involved in a lot of different dimensions of a law case, from interpreting the language of contracts to identifying if someone is drunk based on their voice.

  • Language and culture: 

Translation: Translation involves appreciating a lot of the subtleties of two of more languages and figuring out how to translate from one to the other. Translation services is a big business and has been for a while. We'll see how much of it ends up being taken over by high-tech and automated translation.

Language Revitalization and Documentation: Languages are dying, and dying fast. So, there is a market for linguists to help groups -- Native American tribes, for example -- revitalize and or document these threatened languages.

  • language and health: 

Speech Pathology and Audiology: Generally, this requires a separate degree in Speech Path or AuD, but there isn't too much differentiating this field from linguistics. Indeed, many of the profs at Speech and Hearing Science departments have Linguistics PhDs. Speech pathlogists can work with children (many work for school districts, for example), aphasia/stroke patients and older adults.

Hearing Aids: Hearing aids are a big business in the US and building a better hearing aid will often involve understanding how humans perceive speech since that's the sounds people generally care about most. Linguists do research for hearing aid companies as well as fittings and so on; sometimes a SP/Aud degree is also needed.

Language as a tool for diagnosis: An emerging niche field, but the one I'm going to end with because I think it's an interesting area ripe for research. The way you talk changes when you suffer from Alzheimer's, traumatic brain injury and possibly things like depression and schizophrenia. This may lead to powerful tools for preliminary diagnostic tools without the need of a doctors office visit. Just talk into your smart phone and have an algorithm, written by a linguist, figure out next steps.

I'm sure there is more. If you have any additions, kindly leave them in a comment.

Thank you for reading through this article. Please share it with people who you think should read it to clear their misconceptions about linguists. Have a bright day.


  1. This article does not convinced me. It is really curious the study of linguistics but what I like more is to just understand a book or a talk in other language, the origin of the words don't matter to me.

    It is much more practical to just learn a programing language or just learn how to speak a language.

    There is so many things to learn about languages that I don't have time to spend in deep studies of a language origin.

    1. What you expected to be convinced of is unclear. The areas of human research and other activities which involves Linguistics exists as stated whether you are convinced it or not. And if you consider learning C++ or conversational German is more relevant to your needs, then that is your choice. It is quite legitimate for others to make other choices according to their interests and intentions including a choice to research "deep studies" which may not interest you. Linguistics allows for as wide a field of scientific study as any other.

    2. I usually say that you know a language is diferent that you know to speak that language. The second one is too basic, when someone know how just to speaka language, that person don't know about the historical about that language, about the culture of that language, about the social of that language, so that person is like a robot (google translate, for example), in other words, who just speaks a language can translate that language, but don't know that language deeply.

      Is too important remember that a language and the culturies of its speakers are tightly linked and is very important we learn both.

      If you want to know more about it you can read the book "Línguas, c(C)ultura(s) e Educação Linguística" written by many academics (and linguistics) and organized by Daniel de Mello Ferraz and Micheline Mattedi Tomazi (professor of University of Espírito Santo). The book is very interesting and it has written in portuguese, but you can use the some online translators to help you. But i think that you are Brasilian man and if I am correct You will can read this book.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. If you are a linguist, you will be interested in the 3rd International Conference On Communication Across Cultures:

  3. I find it rather comical that proper grammar isn't included in linguistics! Just the simple reply that I've read here today, are not properly worded.

    For instance in the reply from Ícaro Vieira Silva, contains multiple 'improper grammar' mistakes like:

    "I usually say that you know a language is different [different] [because] you know [how] to speak that [particular] language. The second [choice] is too basic, when someone know [knows] how [to] just to speaka [speak a] language, that person doesn't [dosen't] know about the historical [information regarding that particular] language, [especially] about the culture [or history] of that language."

    Is it that I prefer "wordier" language styles and proper English spelling?

    I'm not trying to be critical and I do not have any sort of professional degree in grammar or linguistics, however, I do know computer coding, and I'm an MCSE with a degree in Computers and Computer Networking. (an Engineer)

    I understand everything that Icara is trying to say, so that part is clearly "viewable and understandable"; however, I find that proper English needs to be properly spelled out correctly.

    It's simply an art that is getting lost in our computer and fast-tech world. With words spelled out like: 'IL C U Latr' - simply drive me crazy! Yes, it's clearly understandable, but I come from a world of proper English with a language style of perfection that I cherish.

    A simple spellcheck application would help 98% of Americans translate their most honest thoughts into the written word.

    Am I too critical? Be honest. I'd really like to hear what other people think of my post here.

    Thank you all, and may each of you fully enjoy the upcoming New Year.

    1. I think your view is too critical: not so much your issue with 'improper' grammar, but your expectations of language. Languages are constantly evolving. The English language that was spoken a thousand years ago, five-hundred years ago or a few centuries ago, is essentially unintelligible and arguably incomparable to the English that we speak in the 21st century. As such, the English that you 'cherish' will be unintelligible to the ears of native English speakers in the future. Language development has always been a controversial issue; however, it is a natural and inevitable process.

      Additionally, there is no such thing as 'proper' English. English has proliferated throughout the globe to such an extent that there are many 'Englishes' or dialects of English (Indian English, Singaporean English, Jamaican English, and so on), that vary grammatically. What is acceptable and 'proper' in your dialect of English, may be superfluous in another. This is applicable to spellcheck applications. A Standard American English prescriptivist grammar tool would be redundant, as most American English speakers would in fact be speaking a dialect of AmE, based on regional or cultural factors (Boston English, African American English, and so on).

      Nevertheless, I understand your position. I also become frustrated with grammatical 'errors', especially online (although mostly when the utterance is essentially unintelligible). There is an issue in the English-speaking monolingual speech community, I believe, where fundamental language and communication skills are lacking. Be that as it may, that is probably more a reflection on Western education and monolingualist ideology.

      Finally, we are living in a time where literacy rates are higher than they have been in any other period in history. I disagree with your comment that grammar is 'getting lost in our computer and fast-tech world'. I would instead argue that linguistic intelligence is higher in the present.

      Please note theses are just my views as a linguistics student and are meant to contribute to healthy debate and discussion.

    2. I agree to Making a Change!! in most aspects. I would just like to add that the view of having 'proper' or such 'standards' as to how we speak English in this sense may qualify to some degree, which appropriateness and standard are visibly present and existing depending on the variation of English we speak today. For instance, views on appropriateness and acceptablity of forms used in Philippine English (PhilE) might be far and different as to how Indians speak English and vice-versa, provided that both variations are products and influenced of western colonialism.

      In this manner, the view of 'proper' and 'appropriate' forms of speaking English in this context thus exist. However, this concept predominantly depends on each variation's perspective and acceptability as to how language use is influenced cultually, socially, and economically.

    3. I think the main difference I see here is that Senior Engineer is interested in prescriptive linguistics, whereas most of the jobs listed (and the majority of people entering the linguistics field) are focused on descriptive linguistics. Prescriptive linguistics deals with the prescribed norms of a language, the acceptable or “proper” syntax, grammar, spelling, etc. This is what we study in our grammar classes in elementary and high school. Descriptive linguistics is the study of languages simply in an effort to see what is true of language and its usage. How is it changing? How are dialects different? What are the connotative definitions of words and where do they come from? Descriptive linguistics is a study of language because we want to know how it works, and prescriptive is a study of language because we want to make rules for how it “should” work.

  4. Hey, it's amazing, Really useful information. Great work.

  5. Under the Entertainment section, it would be proper to add accent reduction (or modification). A not-so-well-known aspect of Speech Therapy. It is also used for non-native speakers in professional arenas.

    1. Hi , is your service free or paid. I am really interested in accent reduction. Thanks


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