What can you do with a degree in linguistics?


There is a lot of advice on what to do with a degree in linguistics.  For example, check out the pretty good list from Ohio State.  However, the most difficult thing about a linguistics degree is knowing how skills in the classroom transfer to a chosen profession.  Without this information, the lists and advice don't seem realistic or relevant.  Let me give you an example.

The first thing on the Ohio State list is a language teacher.  Sure, plenty of linguistics students go on and teach a language in some form, but so do foreign language students.  What is the advantage of studying linguistics then?  Does it make you a better language teacher?  Well, not necessarily.  The question about what to do with linguistics really is about the value of linguistics in a global world, where the study of language(s) is aleady ubiquitous.

We can see the problem even more clearly if we go down the Ohio State list of career options, and decide how much of the suggested career option is really focused on linguistics.

  1. Language teaching (whether second or first language, or literacy).  Linguists do not make particularly great language teachers because they tend to focus on structure and descriptive facts rather than prescriptive rules.  Similarly, there is no reason a linguistics student should be a good language teacher since language majors (English, Spanish, Russian, etc.) can also do this without the focus on structure and description. 
  2. Information technology.  Students majoring in anything computational (e.g. computer science) also have the skillsets necessary here.  In fact, a computer science major has a better likelihood of being better at this than a linguist does.  At best linguistics would be a stepping stone to advanced studies (like graduate school) but most likely it would be a useful minor for CS students interested in language applications.  You will not be a better computer scientist because you study linguistics, though you may be a worse one.  
  3. Publishing.  Technical writers are very oftenly trained in linguistics departments, but they do not need to be (some have degrees from communication departments).  Studying linguistics does not make you a better writer of any sort.  Technical writing can be learned in many different ways.  Editors do not need the focus on structure and model building that a linguistic student gets.  In fact editing is much more prescriptive than the field of linguistics claims is valuable.  This means that if you want to be an editor, a linguistics degree may often seem irrelevant and confusing.  A better option would be to study the language you want to be an editor in.  Lexicography can be done well by linguists, but this type of work can also be accomplished by a language expert.  Of all of the publishing options, this one might be most relevant (but it is also not very often found on job boards).  
  4. Professions (SP, Audiologist, Professor, lawyer, medicine). This one seems especially ludicrous as SP and Audiologist degree programs require special licensing outside of the scope of the field of linguistics.  SP and Audology departments do have some overlaps with linguistics departments, but they help student specialize in the type of phonetics they need instead of giving them a seemingly unnecessary trip through the world’s cross-linguistic diversity.  Pursuing law or medicine is useful but require other schoolwork, and linguistics is not necessary to be successful in any of these.  Being a professor seems circular - learn linguistics so that you can teach linguistics to those people who will teach linguistics in the future.  This is necessary if linguistics is necessary, if you cannot find a reason for linguistics there is no reason to teach and learn it.
  5. Miscellaneous.  This is the least helpful category as none of the items listed require a linguistics degree and call can be learned, studied, and done without ever stepping into a Linguistics 101 course.

What then is the value of linguistics?  What does this degree have to offer than no other degree offers?  Perhaps this is the wrong question, I mean after all there is a lot of overlap between various other disciplines.  Does the purpose of linguistics need to result in a unique skillset?          

This issue is compacted if you consider the number of people and potential employer who require an education beyond a Bachelor’s degree in linguistics to do what they want.  Very few jobs will hire a recent linguistics degree recipient, unless they have added to their schoolwork with other various skills (such as computer science, marketing, or speech-pathology among others). So then why bother with linguistics as a major?  Perhaps a minor is all that is ever necessary. 

This is a hard truth.  The field of linguistics is either irrelevant to the modern world or we are missing the point of what linguistics is.  Perhaps none of these career options are what linguists are trained to do.  Just because these job options deal with language in one way or another does not mean that they fall within the scope of linguistics.  In some ways the field of linguistics is the epitome of the decried decline of the relevance of the humanities.  Linguists want to understand the human condition through language, but so what?

I think if you ask any linguistics student or professional linguist why they study linguistics you will come to a small set of answer:

  1. They have self-evaluated as being “good” with languages - perhaps as a language learner.
  2. They are drawn to the complex puzzle of a system that is in a constant state of change and variation.
  3. They value the indescribable connection between a language and its speakers.

It is true that nobody, in any discipline, is able to objectify and respect a language as a system of human communication better than a linguist.  They are simply drawn to the whole concept of linguistics for indescribable reasons.  In fact, this is the only good reason to study linguistics, and the only useable skill - linguists love the complexity of language.    

Hiring a linguist, then, is a good idea if you deal with language in any form because they have the skills that can help them see language from all angles at the same time.  Language is a social communicative system that is layered (sounds, words, sentences, discourse, etc.).  To see a language as a holistic system (and not be scared away) you need a linguist.  To be confronted with regular and irregular patterns in language use and know what it means, you need a linguist.  To see the value of language as a badge of social and historical identity, you need a linguist. 

This means that the transferable skills from a linguistics degree are the following:

  1. Seeing language as a holistic system
  2. Managing and analyzing a varying and complex social system
  3. Evaluating language policy that represents the needs of everyone involved
  4. Providing the preliminary and foundational analyses necessary for literacy and language development programs. 

If you are a student, don’t just take linguistics courses.  First, decide how you will be using your developed skills and then focus your classes, your term papers, and your theses on that.  Your task is for you to recognize your own skillset so that you can then articulate it to potential employers.

If you are an employer, linguists will make you think about language in new ways.  You have to be ready to throwout your received ideas and traditions about how to treat any and all languages.  The potential locked inside of a linguist is amazing, but don't ask them to do a job others can and should be doing.  


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