What is a Linguistics Degree?

Linguistics explores the nature of language variations and dialects, how language evolves over time, how it is processed and stored in the human brain, and how it is acquired. It is the scientific study of language and communication, both within a single language and across language groups. Its primary sub-areas are 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; and pragmatics – language in context.

This summary may at first glance appear to present a very specialized and narrow field of study. Upon further investigation, though, one can begin to envision the applicability and impact of linguistics on disciplines as diverse as philosophy, education, psychology, sociology, anthropology, computer science, and artificial intelligence. Suddenly, the potential career opportunities connected to a linguistics degree are expansive.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics – Four Year Duration
Graduates of linguistics programs with a four-year bachelor’s degree do not typically work directly in the linguistics field. Rather, they tend to move into language related careers in writing, editing, and journalism.

Master’s Degree in Linguistics – Two Year Duration
Doctoral Degree in Linguistics – Three to Five Year Duration
These graduate-level degrees are targeted at individuals who wish to work in academia, conducting linguistics research or teaching the discipline.

Degrees Similar to Linguistics

Anthropology is the study of the evolutionary history of people, how they interact, how they adapt to various environments, and how they communicate and socialize with one another. The link to language and to linguistics – the nature and structure of language – is evident. In fact, historically, anthropologists have been trained in one of four areas: sociocultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics.

Sociology is an attempt to understand how membership in a particular social group affects individual behavior. It examines patterns in human behavior and how they impact human relationships. These patterns; these social and cultural processes naturally include language and linguistic tendencies within groups.

Mass Communication and Media Studies
This discipline looks at how people collect, share, and use information. It combines elements of the social sciences and the humanities to study how humans communicate. While the field explores traditional and new interactive media, it also examines language and how we use it.

It is not uncommon for individuals who consider pursuing a degree in linguistics to also think about an education degree. The processes of language learning and teaching naturally link the two areas.

Foreign Languages and Literatures
Of course, the field of linguistics is directly linked to first language acquisition and foreign language learning. The sub-areas of linguistics (explained in the summary, above) – phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics – are the foundations of foreign language learning.

One of the sub-disciplines of linguistics is psycholinguistics, which is concerned with the ways in which language is represented and processed in the brain. Psycholinguistics asks two questions: What knowledge of language is needed for us to use language? Which cognitive processes are involved in the use of language?

Language is central to human cognition, perception, culture, and life. It allows us to express ideas and emotion. How it does this is a question that has concerned philosophers from the time of Plato.

Computer Science
Computer science and linguistics both study the properties of language. They therefore share concepts, terminology, and methods. For a further discussion of the relationships between the two disciplines, see the Case Study, below.

Skills You’ll Learn

In addition to gaining an intricate understanding of the branches of linguistics, the study of the discipline leaves graduates with the following set of soft, transferrable skills:

  • Ability to work with data, analyze, interpret, and present
  • An appreciation for the subtleties of spoken and written communication
  • Ability to write at a high level, through understanding of linguistic structure

What Can You Do with a Linguistics Degree?

Linguistics can occupy many professional spaces in our technology-driven world. Consider these opportunities available to linguistics majors:

Technology and Science

  • Computer-mediated language learning
  • Text-to-speech synthesis
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Natural language processing
  • User research

Advertising/ Branding
Advertising, branding, and marketing agencies commonly conduct extensive linguistic research on the associations that people make with specific words and sounds to devise campaigns that will appeal to and attract consumers.


  • Develop educational materials and methods
  • Train teachers
  • Design assessments
  • Conduct educational research
  • Teach ESL - English as a Second Language (locally or abroad)
  • Teach at the university level (with a graduate degree) in departments such as Linguistics, Philosophy, Psychology, Speech/Communication Sciences, Anthropology, English, Foreign Languages

Skilled translators are needed in various settings, including government agencies, courts of law, and hospitals. Of course, the primary requirement is proficiency in the specific language, but a linguistics background is considered a definite asset.

Language Documentation
Some schools, agencies, and institutes hire linguists to document, analyze, and revitalize endangered languages. These roles may involve conducting language-related fieldwork and surveys, establishing literacy programs, and translating culturally significant documents.

Publishing / Journalism
Positions in writing, editing, and publishing, which demand advanced verbal and composition skills, are natural fits for linguists.

The lexicography (dictionary) industry consistently needs qualified linguists with knowledge of all phonology, morphology, historical linguistics, dialectology, and sociolinguistics.

Testing Agency
Linguists who work with testing agencies develop and evaluate standardized examinations and conduct related research.

Language Consultant
Law firms, law enforcement agencies, police departments, and courts call upon forensic linguists to study matters like the language of legal texts, linguistic characteristics relating to evidence, and voice identification.

Government agencies that hire linguistics experts include the Foreign Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the National Security Agency (NSA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Department of Defense, and the Department of Education.

Case Study

This example from the computer science industry demonstrates perfectly the potential versatility of a linguistics degree.

One noteworthy and probably unexpected employer of linguists is Microsoft Corporation. Its linguists were fundamental in developing the grammar-checking function for Windows software. Responding to the increasingly multilingual Internet, they are currently focusing on improving the quality of automated translation.

In other business sectors, such as finance, healthcare, and various technologies, linguists are being hired as ‘knowledge engineers’ and ‘vocabulary-resource managers’ to research, analyze, and build commercially viable natural language processing systems that understand and converse within those specific domains. These intricate e-business databases or ‘lexicons’ can distinguish between multiple meanings of words, group related words, and produce more targeted online and telecommunications search results. The outcome is improved customer service.


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