What Does A Linguist Do?

"I would like to know more about a career in Linguistics. What exactly does a linguist do?"

asked by Tatiana L. from Islamorada, FL

A linguist is not simply a polyglot (multilingual), a grammarian, or word aficionado. A linguist is a person who is committed to the scientific study of language, which incorporates sound, syntax, definition, significance and more. Linguists concern themselves with implementing scientific methodologies to the study of languages, making observations, developing and analyzing hypotheses, and constructing prototypes and theories.

There is more to the field of linguistics than merely the technical facets of a language, such as documenting the sentence structure of a language. One sub-discipline in which all language speakers are subconsciously immersed is sociolinguistics—the study of the user’s environment, socioeconomic group, age, and education as it pertains to how they use language. In another direction, linguists also endeavor to preserve dying languages by engaging with the language’s speakers and recording them, act as consultants to bilingual education programs; and identify language relationships of both existing and “dead”.

In the sub discipline of medical linguistics, linguists partner with doctors and other medical professionals in a bi-cultural setting. This facilitates an understanding of the manner in which people from diverse cultures view and understands the medical world. Case in point, a western doctor may encounter difficulties when attempting to treat a religiously observant Muslim woman. Here, a linguist would act as a liaison between doctor and patient to ensure mutual understanding and that the optimal methods of treatment are identified.

One aspect of the study of linguistics that is particularly interesting, as well as difficult is the realization that they are actually studying themselves—linguists explore an integral part being human—language.

Telling jokes, naming babies, products and pets, using a dictionary or thesaurus, voice recognition software, communicating with victims of strokes or using sign language— the study of language comes in to play in our day-to-day lives.

In essence, a linguist brings the scientific methodology and perspective to the characteristically human miracle of language. Regardless if it is the formal study of syntax, the structure of sound, definition and meaning, studies within language families, or language acquisition, linguists maintain a catalog of observations, test hypotheses, and attempt to build clarifying theories. Further, linguistic science has many facets such as psychology, anthropology, neurology and sociology among others.

Professional linguists also find employment in these high-tech industries:

On the game show “Jeopardy!” when Watson, the computer program wins, you can be sure that linguistics is afoot.

Linguists are also involved in education—developing educational materials for learners of diverse cultures, university teaching, instructing language teachers, and discovering new avenues by which to assess learning and teach languages most effectively. Without a doubt, a background in linguistics is ideal for those who desire a career in language translation or interpretation, teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) or TESOL.

As well, linguists function in the documentation, analysis, and preservation of at-risk languages by participating in research and language evaluations, launching literacy programs, and even assisting in the rejuvenation of sleeping languages.

The aforementioned are just a few of the employment options for a professional linguist. Opportunities also exist in the publishing industry, authoring dictionaries, law (forensic linguistics) and medicine. Do not overlook the government agencies such as the FBI, CIA, Homeland Security and the NSA, who also employ linguists.

Professional, specialized linguists can find opportunities in a variety of different fields. Some even work in Hollywood!

Career Spotlight: Linguist

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