Sell Us Your Major: Linguistics

This column is devoted to sharing student and faculty input on the various majors offered at Lawrence. The goal is to highlight areas of study that are not well known and to provide undecided students an inside look at things they may want to study.

Language and the diversity that it offers can come as quite a culture shock to new college students who have never spent time away from their home country. Around campus, students can be heard speaking dozens of different languages; many Lawrentians are able to speak two or more languages. This broad and complex inventory of languages that can be seen on a relatively small campus is interesting, especially to those majoring in linguistics.

Linguistics is an interdisciplinary study that focuses on language in a broad range of contexts. The major is related to fields such as philosophy, anthropology and psychology in terms of theoretical and applied approaches to the study.

Professor of Psychology and faculty member of the Linguistics department, Terry Gottfried explained, “Linguistics focuses on the characteristics of language, what makes it work, what the structure of it is, what it implies about social relationships and how we use it every day. The basic areas look at the sound structures of all sorts of languages, the grammatical structure of words and the relationship and meaning words or phrases can carry.”

Gottfried became interested in linguistics when he started learning French at age ten. “I really liked to make up my own languages,” Gottfried laughed. “I was always fascinated by how languages were so different from each other, and that really sparked my interest, leading me to minor in linguistics in grad school.”

A recent linguistics graduate, Tara Marmon ‘16, compared linguistics to mechanics when she said, “In the same way that you learn the parts of a car and how each part makes the car work, you learn about every part of a language and how it all comes together to be a full, complex language machine.”

Similarly to Gottfried, Marmon found her interest in linguistics after studying Japanese from a young age. “I think it’s really important for people to know how they can express themselves,” Marmon explained, “and to understand how other people express themselves. Understanding how people communicate and the most effective ways of communicating can be a skill that any employer would find impressive.”

Since linguistics is rare in most high school curriculums, many students find that their interest stemmed from acquiring second or third languages, like Gottfried and Marmon, or studying other humanistic disciplines like history, psychology or anthropology.

“We have a large interest from students in sociolinguistics,” Gottfried said. “For those interested in anthropology, psychology and sociology, these classes are extremely interesting because you can see how language is influenced by culture and also how it influences culture.”

Sophomore Nicole Crashell, currently enrolled in the Historical Linguistics class, explained, “I love history in general so it’s really fun to look at written records of old languages and see what changes have occurred, but also to see all the similarities between us and the people who spoke a similar language nearly a millennium before [us]. It’s like archeology or paleontology, but instead of looking at artifacts, we look at words, which I think is really cool.”

Linguistics majors are often thought to be snooty academics who write rules about how people should speak and write their language. “This could not be further from the truth,” Gottfried said. “Linguistics is not a study that teaches people how they should speak. It looks at how real people actually speak and attempts to describe and understand why they speak that way. We follow their rules, not the other way around.”

Linguistics is also known to be a very versatile major in terms of finding a job after college. While not every linguistics major will find themselves touring the world and studying how people speak for the rest of their lives, many will be able to find jobs as teachers in both foreign languages and English as a Second Language (ESL). Some also will have career opportunities with translating, speech pathology, writing, editing and several other fields that thrive on skillful communication.

“I would definitely suggest for anyone even remotely interested in languages to take the Intro to Linguistics course,” Crashell said. “Even though it’s not for everyone, it still is interesting and you will learn a lot of valuable skills and information from just taking that one course.”

Gottfried echoed this sentiment and said, “I would say that if you are genuinely interested in how languages work, then definitely give Linguistics a try. It’s quite a versatile major when you really see how valuable a keen understanding of language can be in our modern society.”

While learning and understanding a few different languages is a requirement for Linguistics majors, it is not a pre-requisite. Linguistics would be the perfect major for those who are interested in how languages work, develop and interact. Those who may have an interest in the topic are encouraged by the faculty to attend the Linguistics Tea hosted by the department every Thursday at 4:30 p.m.