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Best Colleges Offering Linguistics Degrees

written by: Winston Smith•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 12/9/2011

While there are many US colleges offering degrees in linguistics, if you are consumed by the study of language, how it evolves and how humanity communicates through language, you'll want more than just any old college -- you want the best. What do courses involve, and where can they take you?

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    Your Top College Choices Are...

    The majority of colleges and universities in the United States offer linguistics programs. The top fifteen institutions for linguistics are (as rated by the National Research Council) are:

    • Johns Hopkins University
    • University of California, Los Angeles
    • University of Maryland, College Park
    • University of Massachusetts, Amherst
    • San Diego State University
    • University of California, San Diego
    • Indiana University
    • Northwestern University
    • Harvard University
    • University of California, Berkeley
    • Purdue University-Main Campus
    • University of Pennsylvania
    • Stanford University
    • Carnegie Mellon University
    • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

    The Council ranking is designed for graduate students so undergraduates should take it with a grain of salt. In some instances, linguistics is part of other departments such as the Cognitive Science program at Johns Hopkins. The Council rankings are not a comprehensive list of colleges offering degrees in linguistics, but the rankings do show the colleges and universities that are known for high quality research.

    In general, the majority of large state universities and most research oriented private universities offer some kind of degree program in linguistics. Universities with graduate programs tend to have more course selection and greater opportunities to participate in research.

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    Linguistics Overview

    Rather than learning a specific language, linguistics teaches students the structures and concepts that underpin human language and how researchers understand language. You’ll learn about accents, dialects, grammar, how words change and how sentences work. In upper year courses, you may also have the opportunity to conduct original linguistic research with professors and graduate students. Linguistics research generally involves observing or recording how people speak words, write or read. Slang, dialects and accents are some of the specific fields that have been studied in linguistics studies.

    Linguistic theory, syntax, sound patterns, laboratory courses and statistical analysis of language are some of the typical courses covered in a linguistics degree. Many linguistics programs require students to develop proficiency in a foreign language of their choice (e.g. Spanish, French, Japanese), a requirement that is both enriching personally and professionally.

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    Credit Hours

    Credit hours requirements tend to vary by university. At Berkeley, the linguistics major has five mandatory courses and ten upper division elective courses. In contrast, Northwestern requires three introductory level courses and nine upper year courses. Finally, the Linguistics Department at University of Massachusetts, Amherst requires their students to take five introductory courses in fields such as semantics and syntax and upper level courses such as African American English and Language Processing. In addition to traditional courses, many linguistics programs encourage students to study computers, statistics and foreign languages. Learning a foreign language will also help linguistics graduates on the job market.

    For those with a limited interest in the field, a minor in linguistics is a good option. Pay close attention to which courses are required and which are elective (electives are generally limited for minors) and see if they appeal to you before you commit to the entire program.

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    What Can You Do With a Linguistics Degree?

    A college program in linguistics lends itself to varied career opportunities, many of them involving technology. Internet search engines, speech to text services and interpretation technologies for the disabled are some of the ways where linguistics experts can find rewarding careers. Language may come naturally to many people but interpreting even simple sentences remains a major challenge in computing. To excel in those fields, colleges often encourage students to take courses in statistics and/or computer science. Academic positions generally require a PhD in linguistics and the competition for positions is very strong.

    Social science researchers and professors represent another important career opportunity for linguistics graduates. In addition to research institutes and government institutions, linguistics researchers can teach, supervise and develop original research in linguistics, the development of language and study how people use language. The majority of social science positions in linguistics tend to be in colleges and universities but organizations such as SIL International (formerly known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics) also employ linguists. Some linguists also use their knowledge of sociology and psychology to research how people and groups use language.

    The health care industry is another growing, specialized area of work for linguistics experts. Linguists in health care settings help patients recover and rebuild their language abilities suffering from mental disorders and conditions such as autism or selective mutism. Linguists in health care are often called clinical linguistics and tend to work with speech pathologists to assist people with severe language disorders. Brian surgery and injuries often cause speech and language difficulties that require the assistance of speech pathologists and clinical linguists to treat.

    Early childhood teachers and educators can also use linguistic knowledge when teaching children. Babies and young children usually learn language quickly but sometimes the expert assistance of an early childhood teacher can help struggling students. Further, teachers with a linguistics background are better prepared to teach students second languages like Spanish.

    Start your future off right and begin your linguistics journey with this list of colleges offering degrees in linguistics.

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    Further Reading and Resources

    • American Association of Applied Linguistics: http://www.aaal.org/
    • International Clinical Phonetics and Linguistics Association (ICPLA) - http://www.icpla.org/ - This organization represents researchers and linguists who work with language and speech disorders such as stuttering
    • Linguistic Anthropologists Occupational Outlook Handbook - This publication, by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, offers salary averages and other career information: http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos315.htm
    • Linguistic Society of America - This professional organization will be of particular interest for academic linguists: http://www.lsadc.org/
    • National Research Council: http://sites.nationalacademies.org/NRC/index.htm
    • SIL International - http://www.sil.org/ - This nonprofit organization helps communities around the world with literacy and other language challenges