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What Is Linguistics?

Language is one of the defining characteristics of human beings and its use lies at the center of most human activities and interactions. Linguistics is the scientific study of language in all of its complexity. Much of linguistic study is centered around three broad questions:

What Is Language?

When linguists study language as a structured, formal system, they investigate many distinct subsystems: the physical characteristics of speech sounds (phonetics); how sounds function together as part of a linguistic system (phonology); how words are formed and new words created (morphology); how words and phrases are combined to form a potentially infinite number of sentences (syntax); and meaning (semantics).

Some linguists who focus on these aspects of language spend years in the field investigating previously unstudied languages, many of which are now on the verge of extinction. By studying the properties of languages from around the world, linguists hope to better understand properties shared by all human languages and the ways in which languages can differ. That is, their goal is to understand the nature of human language - how language "works."

How is language physically embodied and cognitively processed?

Language and the Mind/Brain

Because language is a universal human characteristic, and a component unique to the human mind/brain, studying the nature of human language provides important insight into human cognitive abilities.  Linguists who focus on language as a cognitive process are interested in such questions as: What do you know when you "know" a language? (And what do you know that enables you to translate the symbols you are now reading into meanings?) How do children acquire language and why is learning a second language often difficult? Why is it so challenging to program computers to understand language? How might language have evolved in humans? How do our language abilities compare to other cognitive abilities? Many linguists who explore language as a cognitive process conduct experiments in such areas as speech perception and production, language processing, and child language acquisition to better answer these questions.

How is language use socially embedded?

Language in Society

Language use is an inherently social phenomenon. How you speak depends on such factors as where you grew up, your racial and ethnic identity, whether you are a woman or man, and your education. That is, you use the variation in language as a creative means of expressing who you are (and who you are not). By studying this variation, researchers enhance their understanding of language as well as their understanding of social processes, and discover the social factors that influence our linguistic choices and how these choices are perceived by others. Linguists who study the social aspects of language also investigate such topics as how and why languages change over time, how new languages are created when speakers of divergent languages come into contact, how language attitudes are used to maintain forms of discrimination, how conversations are social transactions, the relation between language and power, and the use of language in the media.

Why Study Linguistics?

Many students take their first linguistics course because they have studied one or more languages other than their native language(s), and they find that they are intrigued by the languages themselves or perhaps by the difficulties encountered in learning new languages. Whatever their initial motivation, students who pursue linguistics are usually drawn by the excitement of learning about, and contributing to, a science that is still in its infancy but undergoing rapid development. Linguistics students not only explore questions about language, but receive broad training that cuts across traditional boundaries between disciplines. By virtue of the central role of language in human interactions and activities, Linguistics is situated at the intellectual intersection of the humanities, and social, biological, and behavioral sciences, and is an important component of a liberal education.

Linguistics takes an analytical approach to the study of language, and Linguistics concentrators develop skills in data analysis, problem solving, and logical thinking that can be applied to many fields. For example, graduates with a B.A. in linguistics have a firm foundation (sometimes in combination with training in another specialization) from which they can pursue careers in such areas as the publishing and communication industries, translating and interpreting, computational fields, foreign language teaching, and the teaching of English as a second language. For more information, see this Career Guide for Linguistics.

Many students with a linguistics B.A. choose to undertake graduate study in this area, or in the related disciplines of psychology, speech and hearing sciences, anthropology, philosophy, or computer science; Linguistics also provides excellent preparation for law school. Recipients of U-M linguistics B.A. degrees are regularly accepted into top graduate programs in linguistics and other disciplines.