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Linguistics (the scientific study of human language) is about what language is and how it works, and it’s present everywhere you turn--or at least every time you open your mouth to speak. Not only is the development and structure of language fascinating, it can speak volumes about how human brains--and cultures--function.

There are probably a dozen subfields of linguistics, but most fall into three categories: theoretical, descriptive and experimental/psychological. Theoretical linguistics focuses on language structure in sound patterns, word and sentence structure, and interpretation. Descriptive linguistics examines languages in context, considering socioeconomic factors and how languages change over time as well as the diversity and death of many lesser-documented languages. Experimental and psychological linguistics delve into the ways that we as humans learn, perceive and process language.

Degree Information

A masters-level (M.A. or M.S.) degree in linguistics covers core areas of language structure, field methods and research. Programs may be class- or thesis-based; most take about two years.

A Ph.D. in linguistics may take an additional three to four years. Most doctoral programs encompass masters-level material but focus on theoretical topics in language structure, language acquisition and processing. Upon completion, Ph.D. students are generally required to pass written exams in their areas of concentration and orally defend their dissertation.

Students interested in practical applications of English linguistics might also consider an M.A. program in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) through a foreign languages department.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Degree Program

  • What is your motivation for studying linguistics? A love of languages? An interest in brain function? A curiosity about the cultural and social implications of the spoken and written word?
  • What area of linguistic study interests you most? Do you prefer to work with language in the abstract or in application?
  • Is the program you’re considering based on coursework or a written thesis?
  • What are the reputations and connections of the faculty? How do their research and publications fit your areas of interest?

Career Overview

Most professional linguists have Ph.D.s and work in academia, where they conduct research, publish findings and teach. Depending on the focus of your degree and research, though, you can do an amazing lot of things in linguistics. Linguists can be found in clinics and labs pinpointing language-related brain function; in the anthropology field documenting the little-known native languages of indigenous peoples; in the development of therapeutic approaches to speech pathology and communication disorders in children; and in information technology, applying computational linguistics to the development of software and artificial intelligence.

Career/Licensing Requirements

There are no career/licensing requirements for linguists.

Salary Information

Since linguists work in fields from library science to law, salaries vary widely. However, since most professional linguists are academics, it’s worth noting that a college or university professor can start around $50,000 and work their way up to a six figure salary.

Related Links

Linguistic Society of America
Located in Washington, D.C., the Linguistic Society of America is the largest linguistic society in the world; an interest in the field is the only requirement for membership. In addition to a regularly published journal, LANGUAGE, the LSA hosts annual meetings and summer institutes.

Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas
The Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas is a 900-member, scholarly organization for linguists interested in interested in the scientific study of the languages of the native peoples of North, Central and South America.

Linguist List
Browse over 2000 pages of linguistics information and research, subscribe to a mailing list, or use the Linguist List’s searchable archives to find what you need.

International Phonetics Association
Check out the oldest organization of phoneticians in the world--the organization that gave us the International Phonetic Alphabet.


  • Introduction To Language Acquisition

  • Applications Of Linguistics

  • Computational Linguistics

  • Ethnic Bilingualism In The United States

  • Field Research In Spoken Language

  • Formal Semantics Of Natural Language

  • Historical Linguistics

  • Language Types And Linguistic Universals

  • Morphology And Syntax Of Contemporary English

  • Phonetics

  • Phonology

  • Semantics

  • Sociolinguistics

  • Topics In The Structure Of Modern English