Are you thinking of studying Linguistics?

Image shows the word 'welcome' in a variety of languages.

Linguistics is the study of language from a scientific perspective: what language is, how it develops, how it is acquired, how it is structured, what languages have in common and how they differ.
The answers to these questions can be informed by society, politics, history, psychology or philosophy; hence linguistics transcends the traditional boundary between the humanities and the sciences, having a foot in both camps. Linguistics can be studied on its own or with a language, and sometimes in combination with other subjects such as Philosophy or Psychology. It has a degree of interdisciplinary overlap that means these kinds of combined courses make a great deal of sense.

What kind of things can I expect to study?

Image shows a road sign with 'Vannes' in French and 'gwened' in Breton.
You might look at the effects of bilingualism.

In order to address the areas of study listed above, you will look at the following:

  • IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet)
  • Morphology
  • Syntax
  • Phonology and phonetics
  • Language development
  • Bilingualism
  • Metaphor
  • History of your chosen language
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Semantics
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Language origins and evolution

The range of topics that you might address in optional modules is very broad, and can cover more-or-less anything connected to the world of languages.

What do I need for a Linguistics degree?

Image shows seeds in test tubes.
Linguistics can be more scientific than you might realise.

A-level English is a requirement of some universities; some are happy with any variety of English, whereas some (usually lower-ranking universities) will specify A-level English Language or Language and Literature. Others encourage students to take a science subject, though it is seldom compulsory.
Lancaster (which is the third best university in the country for linguistics, according to the Complete University Guide – beating Oxford by a long way) rather bizarrely requests that students have at least one of English Language, English Combined or a modern/classical language, Mathematics, Computer Science or Psychology – but doesn’t specify further.
It can be seen, then, that you don’t actually need to have a foreign language at A-level to study Linguistics, even at the top universities. Nonetheless, you will need to demonstrate an interest in languages – and it is highly recommended that you at least have a language at GCSE. After all, if you are going to dedicate three or four years to the study of language, you should make sure that you do find the formal study of languages interesting.

What skills will I acquire?

Image shows a baby reading a picture book.
You’ll learn about the process of language acquisition.

The variety of skills that can be acquired from a linguistics degree can be demonstrated by the diversity of suggestions made by universities.
Bangor University’s website states that, “a degree in Linguistics and/or English Language will increase your knowledge of language acquisition, speech and language disorders, the history of the English language, teaching English as a foreign language, and your competence in the grammatical structure and use of the English language.” In other words, Bangor emphasises the language and psychology aspects of Linguistics.
By contrast, Lancaster University emphasises the scientific aspects of the degree, saying that, “our Linguistics degree cultivates skills in data analysis and presentation, critical thinking and the use of statistics and IT.” As Linguistics crosses over the boundary between the humanities and the sciences, it is possible to choose your course or your modules within your chosen course towards humanities-related skills or science-related skills depending on what you might want to do on graduation.

Will I get to travel as part of my degree?

Students of pure Linguistics or of English Language and Linguistics probably won’t get the chance to travel as part of their degree. However, Linguistics combined with a foreign language almost always includes a year abroad in order to practise the language you are learning with native speakers.

What careers are possible with a Linguistics degree?

Image shows someone adjusting settings on a sound desk.
Careers in the media are popular among Linguistics graduates.

Linguistics is another degree that doesn’t learn naturally into any particular career; while it has strong relevance for career like speech therapy and translation, these options will usually require further study or training.
Other popular careers for Linguistics graduates are media-related careers such as editing, marketing or PR. Teaching (particularly EFL and other language teaching) and other education careers are also popular, including supporting specialist learning, where linguists’ understanding of language acquisition can be very useful.
Of course, the usual variety of graduate schemes and general graduate entry jobs is available, ranging over fields from HR to management to the Civil Service.

Related degrees

Image shows an illuminated medieval manuscript.
You might be interested in looking at ancient or medieval languages.

If you’re thinking of studying Linguistics, you might also be interested in these related degrees:

  • Modern Foreign Languages: instead of studying language, you might want to consider studying languages – especially if your end goal is to become more proficient in languages in general, which Linguistics doesn’t help with as much as you might think.
  • Classical or Medieval Languages: if you’re interested specifically in the history or evolution of languages, you might wish to investigate that by learning the languages of the past.
  • Psychology: if you’re interested in how language affects how we think, you might be interested in the broader study of the ways in which the human brain operates.

A final thought on Linguistics

Linguistics is an unusual degree in that it spans a wide range of topics while having a strong, specific focus: the study of language. If you’re intrigued by the ways in which humans communicate with one another – both now and in the past – but you don’t want to choose a strictly humanities-focused degree like English Literature but instead want to explore these questions from a scientific perspective, then Linguistics would be perfect for you.
It’s easy to be misled into thinking that it’s a soft option – a science-lite subject for people who don’t really like science – but in fact it is a rigorous and demanding course that, with its humanities and science elements combined, forms an excellent preparation for the world of work.

Image credits: banner; sign; science; baby; media; manuscript.