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Everything you’ll know if you study Linguistics – the degree nobody knows about

Please don’t ask me how many languages I speak


Almost every linguist will find themselves being asked the same questions when they reveal what degree they do. What languages do we speak? Isn't it basically the same as studying English? And what exactly do we plan on doing afterwards?

In a nutshell, it's the study of the theory behind all of human language and how we speak – we can go from analysing the grammar of an obscure African language, to observing the cooing sounds of babies, to programming a robot's voice, all in a day's work.

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Plus we get to learn the IPA which is cool

Once you go to the hassle of explaining it, most people agree that it does sound pretty fascinating. Except it's only offered at a handful of unis, and when you go to fill out a student questionnaire? Well – your degree option isn't even usually there.

So, what's it actually like to study a subject that you don't do in school – a subject that your parents don't even get?

Literally nobody understands what your degree actually is

Every time you get in a taxi, go to the hairdresser or meet a distant aunt, you'll find yourself wishing you'd made a less obscure choice of degree – because it would make small talk SO much simpler. What you would give to be able to name your subject without getting a quizzical look and having to launch into a long and winding explanation of the International Phonetic Alphabet.

In fact, you've probably lied and told people you studied French or English Lit before, just to avoid the awkward conversation dragging on much longer than intended.

It's WAY more scientific than anyone thinks (and you probably once thought)

All linguistics students will have noticed the alarming drop-off in attendance after the first few weeks of first year – presumably due to people realising that the degree in textual analysis that they signed up for off the basis of English Language A Level isn't exactly the reality.

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I bet you didn't expect this at A Level

The rest of us grow to learn later on down the line that some theories of grammatical structure are more maths than sense, and that sometimes when you find yourself dissecting speech waves or writing lines of code to program an artificial voice you have to remind yourself that you're not actually doing a science degree. At least we don't have to use calculators.

Everyone seems to think it's just languages

If you had a penny for every time someone asked you what languages you speak, you would probably be rich enough to buy a few thousand copies of "Linguistics for Dummies" to hand out in such situations.

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You wouldn't have to draw semantic diagrams in a French degree now would you?

One acquaintance of mine from home still asks me which languages I'm "doing at the moment" every time he sees me, as if my degree involves learning a constant rotation of foreign phrases until my brain becomes saturated with too many different ways to say "one beer please" and I have to give up. Presumably this is the point at which he thinks linguists are able to graduate.

You're expected to worship at the altar of Chomsky and/or David Crystal

Sometimes you come across the odd smart-arse who thinks they know what Linguistics is. You might be excited at first – but with every cliché that comes flying out of their mouth, your eyes roll a little further back in your head. Don't we all wish we could go back to the days when we thought that Chomsky's work was like a collection of religious texts never to be challenged?

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Actually, most of us don't really like Chomksy all that much

Ask any non-linguist what they think of the idea that babies are born with a catalogue of grammatical rules in their tiny pea heads, and they'll probably look at you like you're crazy. Plus, it's a well-known fact that Chomsky is no fun – his interview with Ali G proves everything.

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Tell me one more time that linguistics isn't a science…..

According to most people you have no job prospects other than speech therapist or teacher

What do you mean, you don't want to be a teacher or a translator? What else could you possibly do with such a broad-ranging, diverse degree that teaches you the theory, science, history and philosophy of language – the only one feature that distinguishes our species from the rest of the animal kingdom? Beats me.