After years of low demand and dwindling pay, linguistics graduates
are being recruited by high-tech companies eager for employees with an understanding
of the complexities of natural language.
"One of the major challenges of computer scientists has always been getting
machines to deal with human natural languages in a useful way," says Stephen
Anderson. He is the chair of linguistics and cognitive science at Yale University.
Anderson says that understanding how speech works is one of the really
hard problems of science.
"And since linguists actually do have some grasp of the basic nature of
the knowledge we deploy as human language users, knowledge that would be incredibly
useful if computational systems could be similarly equipped, we have suddenly
become very much in demand," says Anderson.
John Ohala is a professor of linguistics at the University of California.
"In my experience, there has been a virtual boom in jobs for linguists at
virtually all levels: BA, MA, PhD, as well as for established faculty," he
"Even though about half of my PhD students went into industry over the
past 30 years, industry now comes knocking on my door looking for technically
qualified people who know about the structure of language and speech."
Ohala explains that the demand comes mostly from "voice portal" companies.
These offer clients access to information on the Internet using only a telephone.
According to Ohala, linguists with some background in programming, natural
language processing, acoustic analysis of speech, or digital signal processing,
or those with experience managing large works of written or spoken language
get the best jobs. Yet even linguists without those skills are finding good
jobs, he says.
"Jobs range from something approaching pure research positions to positions
developing organized lexicons for foreign languages to jobs making sure that
new names for products don't have unfortunate meanings [or connotations] in
foreign languages," says Anderson.
Eduard Hovy currently heads the natural language group at the University
of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute. He divides tech jobs
that linguists are now holding into three major groups:
- A job (in a start-up, say) analyzing the start-up's problems and designing
the basic stages of processing
- A job as a lexicographer collecting and categorizing words and adding
the appropriate features to make them useful to the computer system
- A job as a problem spotter, searching for good niches into which to fit
Professors are watching their students come in, learn and go out with terrific
jobs, no matter what form of linguistics they choose to specialize in.
Hovy says that the linguistic student makes himself or herself much more
marketable by developing programming skills.
"This way, he or she can work with programmers in a much more useful way.
Even one year's worth of programming courses -- an intro course, a data structures
course, an algorithms course and a more advanced programming course -- is
excellent preparation for a career in NLP [natural language processes]," he
Anderson says that these changes have had several different effects on
the field. "Job opportunities for linguists are no longer, as they have sometimes
been, limited to purely academic positions teaching new generations of students
to be academic linguists," he says.
"Promising students go off to work in industry. The best student I've had
in years took a job in Silicon Valley last year, partly because jobs for syntacticians
were really scarce, but also because it was really a better job than most
beginning academic positions offer."
It may take years before we see where the future of linguistics will eventually
lie. But for now, linguists can enjoy new and exciting career choices in the
field of technology.
Association for Computational Linguistics
Provides a brief overview
Eduard Hovy's Project Page
See what projects linguists can be part of