Linguist  What They Do

Just the Facts

Insider Info

dotLinguists study and explore written and spoken language. They may examine the evolution of languages, the combination of words to create meaning, the meaning, sound and origin of words and the sounds used in a language's vocabulary.

dotThe study of language is a huge topic, so over the years linguistics has been divided into a number of categories.

Theoretical linguistics is the most general discipline of this field. People involved in this area basically examine how languages work.

Historical linguistics looks at the development of languages and how languages got to be the way they are today.

Sociolinguistics focuses on language and how it influences and is affected by the structures of societies.

Psycholinguists are people who study how language is implemented in the brain. Occasionally, psycholinguists may work for advertising firms, using their knowledge of language to write texts for various kinds of ads or for hospitals, helping patients who have language disorders.

Applied linguists use their knowledge of the mechanics of language to teach and translate foreign languages. Applied linguistics specialists may contract their services as translators, either for person-to-person translation or for translating literature.

dotOne of the newest disciplines of linguistics is computational linguistics, which studies computer processing of human languages.

These specialists may work for computer or software companies, creating computer languages and designing programs such as those used in voice recognition software and real-time transcription in courts.

dotNo matter which area of linguistics they specialize in, odds are people in this field will be employed in a university or college, teaching linguistics and doing research projects. In fact, more linguists are employed in educational institutions than in all other employment situations combined.

dotAlthough they're experts at language, linguists aren't necessarily multilingual. "When I tell people I'm a linguist, they usually assume I can speak a dozen languages, which I don't," says California linguist Anca Nemoianu. "Some linguists do, but it's not a requirement for all disciplines of this field."

Linguistics professor Ed Burstynsky agrees. "Noam Chomsky, perhaps the most famous of linguists, only speaks one language," he says.

dotThe nature of linguistics research requires that people interested in this field be precise and patient.

"[Conducting a linguistics study] is very fussy, long-term work," says Linda McNab, a linguist. "You have to be absolutely accurate with your data and not expect immediate results."

dotMost linguists work 35 to 40 hours per week, with those who teach averaging about 12 hours per week in the classroom. The number of work hours for linguists can increase, depending on how much time they spend on independent research.

dotThere are no physical requirements for this job. Those with hearing difficulties may find work and especially research in the area of speech and language sounds challenging.

At a Glance

Research and study languages

  • Computers have become a necessary tool for linguists
  • A large percentage of linguists work in educational fields
  • A PhD is recommended for those who want to teach in universities