Linguistics Degrees: Courses Structure, Specializations & Career | Top Universities

It is often said that the thing that separates humanity from animals – other than cooked food – is language. Being able to communicate with language is one of the reasons why humanity has become so powerful.

Language is a complex thing though. Not only is learning a new language time-consuming and difficult, think about how difficult it would be to actually create a new language from scratch, one as complex and derivative as the one you currently speak. The study of linguistics exists in order to help us understand, in a scientific way, the abstract noises and shapes which we use to communicate with each other, the differences between them and what they mean, the rules which govern them, and how we understand them.

What to expect from a linguistics degree

The vast scope of linguistics degrees means that you will learn about language through a wide range of diverse disciplines, in an attempt to understand how language works.

You may call upon humanities disciplines such as modern languages to analyze differences and relations between related and unrelated languages, history to map out the evolution of language over time, or philosophy to get to grips with the concepts of meaning. Social sciences also come into play, with subjects like psychology and sociology exploring how we actually put language to its main use of interacting with each other.

To study linguistics then, you will need to have a multidisciplinary brain and be open to learning new things in varied ways. If you do decide to study linguistics, once you graduate, a wide range of specialized careers will be open to you.

Course structure

In the first year of an undergraduate linguistics degree, you will cover a number of core elements of the subject, including semantics and phonetics. These core areas are often taught largely via lectures as a series of introductory modules, saving later years of study to specialize in areas of individual interest.

You are likely to be assessed through written exams and coursework, but the weighting will vary from institution to institution. (At King’s College London, for example, the program has a weighting of 75% coursework, 25% written exams). Linguistics coursework is more than just essay writing, however, with some universities challenging students to produce reports, data analysis, presentations, group and individual projects, research and dissertation work.

For more practical work, your studies may involve the use of laboratory equipment and the exploration of real scientific methods in order to understand how we physically make sounds and to understand how the brain processes language.

Entry requirements

Entry requirements for linguistics degrees vary, but for leading universities in the UK you may be expected to have a minimum of two As at A-level, with an A in English (literature or language or both). Good grades in related topics are also looked favorably upon. Examples of related topics include other modern languages (for instance French, Spanish, German or other), sociology, psychology, history, mathematics and philosophy.

If you study linguistics at undergraduate level, you will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or, in some cases, a Bachelor of Science (BSc). Linguistics degrees usually take three or four years to complete depending on the country, or if you choose to study linguistics alongside a modern language, you may get the opportunity to undertake a longer course with one year spent studying abroad.

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Linguistics specializations

If you choose to study linguistics as an undergraduate, you will be expected to gain a basic grounding in the whole spectrum of the subject through the study of core modules. With a subject so broad, however, the further you progress on your program, the more you’ll be expected to specialize in a particular area of linguistics. This will enable you to gain expertise and prepare you for specialized linguistics careers.

Popular specializations and modules on offer include the following;

Applied linguistics

As the name suggests, applied linguistics refers to the use of linguistics to solve real-life problems related to language. The initial focus of applied linguistics was the teaching of second languages, and helping people to communicate across linguistic boundaries still remains the backbone of the subject. Applied linguistics is, however, much wider in scope, and is known for a being a particularly multidisciplinary branch of linguistics.

Cognitive linguistics

The field of cognitive linguistics seeks to explain the mental processes behind language. One of this discipline’s central tenets is the belief that linguistic knowledge is not different to other types of knowledge; in contrast, some other branches of linguistics consider the linguistic portion of the brain as being distinct from other mental processes. Cognitive linguistics is a relatively new branch of linguistics.

Comparative linguistics

The goal of comparative linguistics is to compare and contrast different languages in order to identify similarities and differences between them, with the ultimate aim of finding a common root and systematically explaining the differences. This can sometimes involve the reconstruction of a dead common ancestor of two languages.

Semiotics

Semiotics is the study of signs, their meanings, and the processes that govern the relationship between the two. Semiotics is not necessarily limited to the study of words, and can include anything that has some sort of cultural, societal or other type of significance, such as a green traffic light or an offensive hand gesture.

Lexicography

The term lexicography is used to describe the recording of language. Dictionaries are the most common form of lexicography in practice. As well as compiling dictionaries, however, lexicographers seek to improve the methods that are used to record language by evaluating current compendiums of words. Theoretical lexicography also looks to analyze the vocabulary of a language, looking to investigate what links certain words in terms of their physical make-up and their meaning.

Other linguistics specializations that may be available to you include semantics, syntax, phonetics, phonology, sociolinguistics (the variation of language in society), neurolinguistics, psycholinguistics, historical linguistics, pragmatics and language acquisition.

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Linguistics careers

Graduates of linguistics degrees have a number of career pathways from which they can choose. Many opt to continue to graduate-level study, which is necessary for entering into many specialized linguistics careers, but this is not essential for all pathways. Linguistics careers are incredibly varied, ranging from academic roles to literary ones, and from science-based speech therapy to the slightly more left-field career of voice coaching.

Linguistics graduates wanting to enter the education sector will likely need to gain additional qualifications such as a teaching qualification (to teach in primary and secondary education), a master’s degree to work within tertiary education and even a PhD to conduct if you want to conduct your own academic research.

For linguistics careers which you will be able to go into with just an undergraduate degree (plus a little job-specific experience or on-the-job training), consider media and publishing roles, other education roles within libraries or museums, public relations, language consultancy or even speech therapy roles.

Linguistics careers in language tuition

Other than traditional teaching routes, there are also opportunities to teach languages to those who are not native speakers, such as for those enrolled on a paid language course or within a different country entirely. There’s particularly high demand for tutors in global languages such as English and Spanish. Although the pay is often minimal, the opportunity provides a chance for graduates to explore different cultures and get teaching experience abroad, often without the need for a foreign language qualification.

Linguistics careers in language consultancy

Language consultants work within consultancies, agencies and individual businesses in order to help corporations use language appropriately. The role requires strong communication skills and the ability to perceive how different uses of language can affect customers and audiences. Often language consultants are hired in order to help sell products to specific markets, but they are also used in order to present sensitive situations using appropriate language, for business and within the workplace itself.

Linguistics careers in translation and interpretation

If you are bilingual, you may consider working in translation or interpretation. Although similar, translation is the act of converting written material from one language to another, while interpretation is the act of converting spoken communication from one language to another. Linguistics graduates with good writing abilities may opt for the former, while graduates with strong verbal communication skills may opt for the latter. These roles are good careers for those who study linguistics, as the developed knowledge of language helps to avoid miscommunication while conveying specific and implied meanings. Many translators and interpreters work as freelancers, but working within an agency or big organization is also an option.

Linguistics careers in speech and language therapy

As a speech and language therapist (or SLT) you will be working with people of all ages, including infants, children, and adults, in order to help support those with language and communication problems of varying severity. A speech and language therapist may also be involved with people who have problems eating, drinking or swallowing. Your role as a language therapist will be to assess the needs of your individual clients and to develop a treatment program in order to improve their condition. As well as working closely with your client, who may have physical and learning disabilities and/or other medical conditions such as dementia, you be working closely with the relatives or carers of your client to help treat the problem.

Often a speech and language therapist will work as part of team of other health professionals including doctors, nurses, psychologists and other specialized therapists.

Linguistics careers in lexicography

The role of a lexicographer is to write, edit and compile dictionaries for publication – both in print or online. If your linguistics degree focused mainly on the English language, you will be working with English dictionaries, either for native speakers or learners of the language. There is also the option to work as a technical lexicographer, where you will be involved in publishing technical language dictionaries, for the legal sector for instance.

If you studied more than one language during your linguistics degree, or are bilingual, then you may be interested in working with bilingual dictionaries used for translation purposes.

Alternative linguistics careers

Then there are all the other graduate-level jobs in which the skills gained from a linguistics degree – a combination of the critical, abstract thinking of humanities disciplines and the analytical skills and precision which come from the scientific side – are in high demand. Subjects such as teaching, PR and work in the NGO sector are all options which university linguistics graduates might also consider, as are banking, administration and information or archive management.

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Key Skills

Common skills gained from a linguistics degree include:

  • Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary skills
  • Analytical skills, and the ability to turn raw data into hard findings
  • Team-working skills
  • Critical and lateral thinking
  • Understanding of the subject-specific lexicon
  • Problem-solving skills
  • A wide and in-depth understanding of language which can be applied to other areas
  • A framework for keeping pace with developments in a constantly evolving field
  • Self-management skills
  • Time management and organization skills
  • Excellent communication skills, and the ability to present information to both laymen and experts