What Linguistic Majors Really Study

I’m asked often what I study as a linguistics major and usually this comes in the form of a question such as the following: You study a bunch of different languages then right? How many do you know? The answer is complicated, technically my classes expose me to many languages, however, I cannot say I know or can translate languages besides English. If you read on from here, the question should be answered, or at least linguistics may make a bit more sense to you than before.


A big misconception from linguistics is the notion that an undergrad learns how to translate/speak many languages. It’s not surprising considering the tendency for television and film to depict a linguist as an expert translator. Languages also shows up frequently in media as modern authors create their own languages unique to their universe such as Dothraki and Elvish. Linguistics in reality means the scientific study of a language. This includes its own topics like Syntax: how sentences are strung together in a language. Also, Phonology: the study of sounds along with their patterns in a language. So, I can say that I’ve encountered many languages as a linguistic major. But, I cannot speak or write them for you.

There is a great scene in a movie not talked about enough, in my opinion, titled Arrival. This scene explains a linguist’s job well in the sense that a language that is foreign to us still has the same general rules socially and grammatically regardless of the translation. 

Literature Coursework As Well

I also took some upper division literature to fulfill elective requirements towards my linguistic degree.  Literature majors earned my respect once I found out how  tough it is crafting new arguments for some of the most read texts, even though my courses were limited in number. The coursework was an adjustment for me at first since it involves weekly reading and writing as opposed to linguistics which focuses on exams and participation. My linguistic background wasn’t worthless once I took Chaucer where the required text was Middle English/Chaucer’s English version of The Canteburry Tales. Thanks to my linguistic background I picked up on the language’s structures quickly which made translations easier for me compared to my fellow classmates.

I even did some research to see if a linguistic background applies to literature and found yet another subtopic for linguistics devoted to this very issue. Click here to read more. Anyways, I’m saying not all linguistic majors only know linguistics; we also know how to identify a literary device or two, just ask!geoffrey-chaucers-masterpiece-10-728

Wrong major in retrospective (Looking at you, Phonology)

I changed my major to linguistics my Sophomore year because the variety of languages across time space still fascinates me today. However, phonology and sociolinguistics did not resonate with me (sound pun intended). These courses seemed interesting in the first couple of weeks, but quickly become an insufferable repetition of sound puzzles and failed studies. A more adequate description for both fields boils down to this; Phonology consisted of data set after data set with a hidden sound pattern in each one. Basically, we deal with puzzles using languages that you’ve never seen which have little incentive besides studying.

Sociolinguistics looks at language and how social factors affect it. I took language and gender as my sociolinguistics requirement where we learned through numerous studies that women and men do not speak as differently as hypothesized almost all of the time. This made the readings very dry and the research papers difficult to write given the lack of actually findings in the field. ipa


Therefore, I didn’t choose to be an English major because I like science which I didn’t really know linguistics was until the final classes described above. Studying literary works for a better understanding and then an analysis is much more pleasing to me. My time in the enjoyable linguistic requirements flew by until it was too late, but at least I took some French literature. To be continued in another post!

Authors note

IF you’ve read this far, thank you so much for reading! I hope this post provides you with a little bit of insight into what I and many others study when we say we are linguistic majors. It can definitely be confusing when its rarely mentioned or even majored in. Look out for my next weekly post which will more than likely be similar regarding what French majors study, yes I’m a double major with a minor as well (waiting for December when I’m finally done). Thanks again.

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