Being a Linguist

Back to Basics: What Do Linguists Do?

I belong to a LinkedIn group that focuses on Sociolinguistics, and a recent question submitted to the group was, “What’s the difference between linguistics and sociolinguistics?”

I figured this might be a question that many people have, along with what other branches of linguistics exist, how the fields differ, and what are the various jobs that people in these fields can do. So here’s a quick and dirty breakdown of some of the branches of linguistics I’ve come across. Of course, if you’re a linguist then the ideas in this post will be familiar to you already, in which case please let me know if there’s anything you’d like to add!

In general terms, a Linguist is someone who studies language—how it works, how language is structured, how the various languages differ or are the same, and how we learn language(s). Although most linguists are interested in more than one language, that doesn’t mean we speak multiple languages fluently. However, if you do a job search with the word ‘linguist’ most of the results will be for someone who speaks a certain language (ex: Japanese Linguist, Spanish Linguist). However, translation work is only one small, specialized part of linguistics, and doesn’t fully represent the work that we do.

Theoretical linguists study the building blocks of language: phonology (sounds), morphology (word structure), syntax (sentence structure), and semantics (meaning). Theoretical linguistics also looks for linguistic universals. Many people in this field of study get PhD’s with the expectation that they’ll end up teaching or doing research at the university level.

Computational linguistics is concerned with creating computer programs that can recognize and handle natural spoken language. A perfect example is Siri on the iPhone: voice recognition software that can handle a lot of the variations in pronunciation (though not perfectly). I’m sure there are otehr areas of specialization in this field, but to be honest it’s the one I know the least about. However, I DO know that many of the jobs in this field, like those dealing with artificial intelligence or machine translation, are by far the most lucrative linguistics jobs available.

Sociolinguistics is the study of language as it relates to culture. Although sociolinguists learn about phonetics, morphology, and syntax, they’re mostly interested in how people use the language(s) they know to interact with others and make sense of their world. There’s some overlap with anthropology and sociology, as far as the methodology that sociolinguists use and the kind of work they do, whether in academia or in the “real world.”

Applied Linguistics is, generally speaking, the taking of linguist concepts and finding ways to use them to improve things like language policy or language teaching (like ESL and EFL courses). The Center for Applied Linguistics (or CAL) in Washington, D.C. is a great resource for anyone interested in learning more about this branch of linguistics.

This is only a basic list of some of the fields of linguistics. And there are several kinds of jobs I didn’t talk about that are normally mentioned in conjunction with linguistics, like speech pathology (where there’s some overlap with linguistics, but these positions require different coursework and certification). Either way, this is just a taste of what linguists do. To learn more, I suggest you start with the Linguistic Society of America—when I was first learning about linguistics, they were a very helpful resource!


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