Listed below are a few of the frequently-asked-questions related to linguistics as a career that have been sent to Ask-A-Linguist in the past. However, this is not an exhuastive resource on the topic.

For further information regarding linguistics as a career, please look at the LSA (Linguistic Society of America) website , or search the Ask A Linguist archives .

What does a linguist do?

There is much more to linguistics than just the technical aspects of language, like writing grammars of languages. One area that everybody is already involved in without really recognizing it is sociolinguistics, that is the understanding of speakers' backgrounds (socioeconomic group, degree of education, age, etc) from how they speak. Linguists also preserve dying languages by working with their speakers on recording them, act as consultants to education programs (e.g. when school systems implement bilingual systems), work out relationships between languages, both extant and extinct, and so. And yes, there is a field of medical linguistics, where linguists work with medical professionals in bi-cultural areas to help them understand the medical world views of all peoples they may come into contact with in the hospital setting. For example, a western male doctor might have problems treating a woman from a strict Muslim background, and a linguist could help the doctor and patient better understand each other to ensure that they reach the best treatment options.

--Panelist Jaan Ingle Troltenier

You asked what lingusitics is and why people go into it. There isn't one answer to either question. Linguistics can be anything involving the scientific analysis of language: its structure, its history and the relations between languages, its use in social context, how babies learn language, etc. These are all covered in different subfields of linguistics. What I am particularly interested in is the structure of sentences (syntax) and how different languages are similar to each other and differ from each other in terms of aspects of sentence structure. These are concerns in an approach to linguistics known as "generative grammar," which was originally developed by Noam Chomsky.

I decided to become a linguist for two reasons. First, I love languages and have always beeen fascinated by them. Second, by studying the structure of languages we are studying something about the structure of the human mind, which to me is a fascinating thing for us to be doing. In general, I think that what makes linguistics so interesting, and also often difficult, is that we are studying ourselves -- we are exploring an important part of what it means to be human. Language is such an integral part of being human.

--Panelist Yehuda N. Falk

Linguistics and language-oriented jobs:

Linguistics is good preparation for a variety of kinds of employment, or entry into graduate programs.
As some other respondents have mentioned, computational linguistics is one growing area.
Depending on her interests, I'd also encourage your daughter to consider looking at other technology related fields: computer-human interaction (including interface design), document design, technical writing, usability engineering. All of these are specializations of relatively recent origin, most of them require working on teams with people of varying professional preparation. For some there are graduate training opportunities, for others only on-the-job training and professional associations.
If your daughter is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, she may want to take advantage of two professional association meetings that are coming up this summer: the Usability Professionals Association is meeting in Monterey in mid-August, and the Human Factors group will meet in San Francisco at the end of August. Perhaps she could offer to volunteer at either or both of these meetings and get a feeling for whether this is a direction to pursue after the degree in linguistics.

--Panelist Nancy Frishberg

True, most academic linguists aim toward academic employment, though it's hard to come by these days. But there are certain segments of private industry that are interested in employing qualified linguists. Companies heavily involved in artificial-intelligence seem to know that linguists can be of use to them; i know of several high-quality linguist-researchers who are working for IBM, Xerox, etc. I've also recently seen several ads for jobs for academic linguists from the Mitre Corporation; i'm not very clear on what they do, though i have a few friends who work there. The technology of speech synthesis and speech recognition is probably going to be a big deal in the near future (if it isn't already!), and this might be a good direction to look into, along with companies concerned about such things. I would encourage your daughter to try to get some credits in computational linguistics; that seems to be a burgeoning field right now, i see a lot of job ads, academic and otherwise, looking for people with competence/experience in this area.

--Panelist Steven Schaufele

There's an old publication that might be helpful. It's out of print, but there may be copies in libraries, and it's available from ERIC (can be read in microfiche at a library with an ERIC collection or hard copy can be ordered; info below).
Careers in Linguistics: New Horizons. The ERIC number is ED 216 533. It's 64 pages (helpful to know in determining the price.)

--Panelist Donna Christian

I'd suggest that you go to the Linguistic Society of America's Web site, at That will get you started and should direct you to additional sources.

--Panelist Suzette Haden Elgin

I hope you get lots of responses to this, because the best way to sort things out is to hear from lots of perspectives. My own is that linguistics is a fabulous sport, which can undergird a wide range of careers--teaching, therapy, engineering, writing, law. But that you shouldn't be thinking so closely about a career in connection with university (others will tell you different, I'm sure, probably including your parents; I may well tell my own son different when it's time for him to make this decision, though I hope I have the courage not to).
If you want a career, I'm sure there are college degrees, vocational diplomas, apprenticeships, in your area, that you can pursue now or later. University should be a more explorative enterprise, where you can frolic in large and fascinating fields of knowledge, where you can shape and refine your thinking about who you are and what your social/political/cultural roles should be, and where you can start to sort out some of the big questions of life. Linguistics can help, because language is one of the clearest separating lines between humans and the other animals; it is intensely private (we think with it),and profoundly social (we bridge to others with it). But so can philosophy, literature, history, mathematics, biology, political science. Go to university to broaden yourself, not narrow yourself.
As for the more practical question you asked (the mutual usefulness of a double major in political science and historical linguistics), there aren't any particularly strong links between the two fields that suggest themselves to me (mathematics and linguistics or psychology and linguistics or computer science and linguistics are more natural double-majors), but if you love them both you'll find them informing each other regularly.

--Panelist Randy Allen Harris

The Chronicle of Higher Education has many statistics about colleges and universities. They would not break down the individual fields within linguistics, and may lump linguistics with social or behavioral sciences. They give salary ranges for post-secondary institutional employment (professors) only, usually by state or by discipline. You need a subscription to see most of these details on their website, but a good library should have a subscription to the print version.
The US Department of Labor has big reference volumes on particular job titles, and that would probably have something on translator as a profession.
The Linguistic Society of American may have more information also:

--Panelist Nancy Frishberg

Career Goals:

In Britain, this sort of career requires both a first degree and a post-graduate qualification; the second qualification generally takes 3-4 years. Almost any first degree is acceptable, but a degree in linguistics is particularly favored, and may even allow you to complete the professional qualification a year early. Unfortunately, I can't tell you the position in other countries, but I would imagine it's similar.

--Larry Trask

You will need to spend four or five years getting a Bachelor's degree in either communications (speech @ hearing) disorders with supporting courses in linguistics (and probably some biology) or major in linguistics with supporting courses in disorders.You probably will want some postgraduate study in communications disorders for the Master's degree. If you intend to be on the faculty of a major university, you would normally need the Ph D. From Freshman to Ph D is pretty minimally 8 years, but it neednt be done all at once.
Since CD is not my area, I cant help you with a general set of recommendations but I do know that we here at the University of Cincinnati have a very strong Department of Communications Disorders. Their head was a student of mine when she was working on her Ph D. If you wish to contact them, email me privately and Ill help you get in touch.

--Panelist Joseph F Foster

How I'd answer your question depends what kind of work with deaf and hearing impaired children you want to do.
- If you want to be a speech therapist or an audiologist, then you should look at the ASHA website (American Speech Language and Hearing Association) which describes the preparation for those professions, including college work and certification requirements.
- If you want to be a teacher, then you'll need to make sure that the college you attend (or graduate school) will prepare you for the certification as a teacher of the deaf. Most of the certifying programs are at the masters level, so you need a solid undergraduate degree in something (math, science, English, social studies - what do you want to teach?).
- If you want to be a counselor, some universities offer degrees with specializations that might be more appropriate, although any kind of psychology, or rehabilitation, vocational counseling could be appropriate.
- If you want to be a sign language interpreter, there are over 100 colleges in North American which offer 2 year degrees, but even better, a few offer 4 year degrees in interpreting. There are a handful which grant masters' degrees in this emerging field. I'd suggest that a strong bachelor's degree with an interpreting speciality would be good preparation for a career. (The concern I have with a 2 year degree is that you may feel frustrated in making the transition from college to work, that your preparation is not sufficient to get you to a satisfying level of proficiency and knowledge, and thus that you'd drop out without having really made a good effort at the work.)
- From my perspective as a linguist with sign language as my specialty, I'd say that for any of these other professions a strong language base in American Sign Language will serve you and the children you work with well. There are a number of linguists who specialize in sign language acquisition by deaf children. Their primary work is teaching at the college level, but their research work is conducted with deaf children.
Again, the question is what you're especially interested in and what ambitions you have. Depending on where you're living now and how close to college age you are, you may be nearby some linguists or sign language specialists who could give you more specifics. If you'd like to write back, I'll try to put you in touch with someone appropriate.

--Panelist Nancy Frishberg

I don't think anyone can make this decision for you, but can try to indicate what possibilities are open in each direction. My guess is that linguistics offers more possibilities for work as a researcher/professor than French, but on the other hand, French probably offers more possibiliites outside academia. This is probably even more true for Spanish. Things are changing all the time, so any advice you receive now may be obsolete by the time you finish your degree.
For information about the varius linguistics programs at universities in this country and Canada, contact the Linguistic Society of America at [email protected] and ask for the most recent version of the "Guide to Linguitic Programs..." A new version is supposed to appear on the world wide web soon, but maybe you don't have time to wait.

--Panelist Dan Maxwell

All right, first of all you say your `ultimate goal is to be a professor/ researcher', i.e., an academic. Bear in mind that academic jobs are few and hard to get; I've just gotten my first long-term teaching position after seven years of hard work, and that's counting from the time I got my doctorate, not from the time I started grad school. But if (1) an academic is what you want to be and (2) you have *good* reason to believe that you have what it takes to do high-quality work as either a teacher or a researcher (or both), then go for it.
Secondly, you say you are 'fascinated by how ... languages work, their respective structures, and what separates one from the other.' This sounds very familiar; it was approximately that kind of interest that led me to pursue an advanced degree in linguistics. Given this attitude of yours, I believe you would do well to enter a graduate program that at the very least made it feasible for you to take some courses in both comparative (and probably historical) linguistics and in general (by which I mean cross-linguistic) grammatical theory. You should probably ask yourself where your interests lie with regard to the languages of the world. You mention that you have a BA in French and have started studying Spanish; this suggests an orientation toward the Romance languages. However, you also mention interest in Hindi, an Indo-European language only very distantly related to Romance, and Arabic, which isn't even Indo-European. I sense a rather eclectic bunch of interests. The question I see that you should ask yourself is, Should you aim at a program concentrating on one or more of the Romance languages but with a heavy dollop of linguistics thrown in, or should you aim at a linguistics program with the intention of pursuing your specific interests wherever they may lead, whether into further Romance studies or comparative Indo-European or Papua New Guinea?
I think in your case I can at least tentatively offer a recommendation of the program at my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They have a very good linguistics department; its only defects, to my mind are: (1) it has very little in the way of an undergraduate program and (2) in large part for that reason it has very little to offer in the way of teaching experience for its graduate students. But its faculty is topnotch, with a pretty independent attitude towards matters of theory or allegiance to any theoretical school. Also, the University library has one of the largest collections around, which is of course very convenient. More particularly relevant to your interests, I would note that Hindi and Arabic are both taught at UIUC under the aegis of the linguistics department; I myself took two years of Hindi while working on my master's degree there, and I believe they have recently hired a new Arabicist. The UIUC linguistics department also has a very healthy relationship with the Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese department (which given its scope should really be called the `Romance minus French' department), some of whose faculty have good, solid grounding in general linguistics and occasionally offer courses in comparative Romance linguistics. I'm afraid relations between the linguistics and French departments are not as cordial, though I didn't encounter much trouble the one time I approached some people in the French dept. looking for help on a research paper.

--Panelist Steven Schaufele

You're in the same position I was in twenty years ago. I had spent two years in France, and I had a strong interest in and some knowledge of several other languages (including Arabic). I eventually went to graduate school in linguistics, but I waffled a bit in terms of research direction, because I wasn't only interested in language structure.
One could generalize and say that the goal of most modern linguistics in this country is a characterization of human linguistic ability and an explanation of the language acquisition process. This is not the same thing as studying, say, Arabic because you're interested in that language and culture. If you haven't yet taken a course in linguistics, do so as soon as possible, perhaps as a special student, before enrolling in a program. I've seen a number of people go from language majors into linguistics only to discover that they don't really want what linguistics programs have to offer.
But linguistics is a broad, amorphous field, and linguistics programs do vary widely. If you're careful, you can get training in almost any subject related to language. Beyond the basics, you might find linguists focusing on applied concerns like second language learning or speech deficits, or on sociolinguistic interests like language policy or dialects and education. Some linguists, particularly in historical linguistics (language change) do still study one language or a family of languages because they're interested in those languages and cultures.
Depending on what you really want to do, you would want to choose one program over another. If you're not interested in language in the abstract, be careful to choose a program that allows you to take an anthropological, historical, or sociolinguistic focus. Also, some programs are fairly tightly structured, while others permit you to craft your own program, sometimes across departments (combining psychology and linguistics, literature and linguistics, anthroplogy and linguistics...). There's a lot of homework you need to do before you make a decision.
As for careers, there aren't a lot of positions either in French or in linguistics these days. That may change in the next ten years, as the baby boomers start to retire. One possible solution is to make yourself marketable on both sides, so that you might be eligible for a linguistics position, as well as for a more general job in a French department (some familiarity with the Caribbean or Africa would make you a highly desirable candidate there).

--Panelist Thomas T. Field

You are fortunate in that the University of Cincinnati has a good interdisciplinary B.A. program in linguistics. Have you taken any linguistics courses at UC? At UC you can also contact Mr. Thomas Dinsmore, who has an M.A. in French, an M.A. in English Linguistics from UC, and who is currently pursuing an Ed.D. in TESL in UC's College of Education . Ask Tom what his advice is. If you are serious about entering the tight academic job market in linguistics, you need to know something about both linguistics and graduate programs around the country. How much linguistics you want to study and what aspects of linguistics you want to specialize in would also help to decide what courses of study to pursue and at what universities. I think the best departments are at MIT and Stanford, but there are lots of other good places, too.

--Panelist Carl Mills

First, I have met a number of people who seem to share this kind of interest in languages, but for whom linguistics doesn't work out. I'd really encourage you not to commit yourself to graduate study in linguistics without checking it out a little more. The best way to do this would be to take a course, maybe through university extension. An alternative would be to read one of the general books on linguistics that are out there.
"The language instinct" Steven Pinker
"The language lottery" David Lightfoot
There are lots of others, but those are pretty general and should give you more of an idea.
Second, as far as good graduate programs, this really depends on what KIND of linguistics interests you. I'd bet you're being bombarded with all sorts of opinions on this, but the fundamental question is still what interests you have within linguistics.

--Panelist Mike Hammond

Yes, you certainly should consider a graduate program in linguistics or, if you prefer, Romance Linguistics. There are many excellent graduate programs in both. You might wish to consult the National Research Council's ratings of graduate programs. Among the tops in their evaluations are: MIT, Stanford, UCLA, University of Massachusetts and in addition there are many other excellent programs at Univ of Arizona, Cornell, Yale, Northwestern, Rutgers, University of Maryland, otyer UC campuses, to name just a few.

--Panelist Victoria A. Fromkin

It depends on what area of linguistics you want to study. I do not believe there is a market for an MA in historical linguistics; however, there are some positions that appreciate that you have a masters degree, whatever area the degree is in. These positions are, of course, out of field. Best wishes.

--Panelist Charlie Rowe

With a degree in linguistics and a masters in CS, you are a good candidate for jobs in machine translation, software localization (which is somewhat different from plain technical translation), and other technical positions. There are many companies which will be happy to have a multilingual, technically savvy person.
The particular theories of different scholars that you've studied vs. what people in other places study should not be a problem when you're looking for jobs in industry. The fact that you'll be 34 when you finish is less of a difficulty for university positions, than that you will not have a Ph.D. (at least for North American universities).

--Panelist Nancy Frishberg

Fortunately, computational linguistics is a field that is growing very rapidly. I suggest that you look at the "JOBS" postings in the Linguist List archives ( to get some idea of the kinds of jobs that are available.
Computer-assisted translation is one of the popular fields, but there are many others as well. It may be useful for you to take more courses in linguistics, since there are probably already a lot more programmers around than well trained linguists. However, most job ads in computational linguistics state a preference for candidates who can program in one of the widely used languages.
The theoretical orientation probably doesn't matter much. Computational linguistics tends to be very pragmatic: if it works, it doesn't matter whose theory it represents.

--Panelist Steve Seegmiller