I first started studying linguistics as an undergraduate. I was already completely in love with languages, having started my third foreign language the previous semester and picking up a fourth the next year (there was a semester where I was taking three different language classes). A classmate in 101 Russian was a Linguistics major, and the more she talked about it, the more I wanted in. So going into my second semester of college, I signed up for LING 101, and the rest is history.
If you’re wondering what, exactly, is Linguistics, it’s the scientific study of languages. Just as biologists pick apart what it means to be alive, linguistics look at what languages are, how they’re structured, and how they’re learned by both children and adults. It’s a wide field with numerous sub-fields, some more theoretical, some more applied. If you’re a second-language learner, linguistics can give you some insights into what there is to learn, how you might go about learning it, and difficulties you might have.
Let’s first talk about (some of) the different areas of linguistics, since many will be relevant later on.
Phonetics are the sounds in a language. This field deals with what sounds are possible in all languages, how they’re articulated, and minute differences between sounds in different languages. It goes a lot into acoustics and articulation (how you move your mouth to make a sound).
Phonology deals with how sounds are organized in a language, and how phonological processes in the speaker’s mind determine how a word or utterance is actually pronounced. This can range from syllable structure to processes such as word-final devoicing or why the English regular plural can have so many pronunciations (that native speakers probably don’t notice).
Syntax is the of sentence structure and construction. When you omit from or add to sentences, change word order for emphasis or question creation, et cetera, this is syntax.
Morphology is the study of word-parts and how words are created, as well as representations of a speaker’s mental lexicon. This can bleed over into syntax and phonology, as these fields have serious effects on each other. Morphology includes processes such as compounding (baby-sit), affixation (walk-ed), inflection (eat-s), and derivation (un-stopp-able).
Semantics studies meaning, and how we derive meaning from parts (e.g. cat = ) and wholes (I see a cat).
Pragmatics is semantics within a cultural context. It can determine how you talk to someone i.e. if you’re friendly or polite, but also how you interpret meaning that isn’t directly encoded in the language, be it sarcasm, rhetorical questions, or implications.
Typology is the study of all possible features in languages and their distributions. That is, what is common in the world’s languages, and what isn’t.
Computational Linguistics is the study of language and computers. This is used to help computers parse human language (e.g. translation), but can have other uses as well.
Sociolinguistics studies how humans use language and how language use affects or is affected by culture. One very small, narrow example of this is the newly occurring split of profession terms that historically contained ‘-man’, into two forms: one retaining ‘-man’ and another changing it to ‘-woman’, e.g. policeman and policewoman.
Child-Language Acquisition (CLA) is the study of how a first language is acquired (usually by babies). It looks at the path that is taken, the mechanisms that underlie it, etc.
Second-Language Acquisition (SLA) is the study of how a language beyond the first is acquired, either by children or adults. There is a recent split in this field that narrows this field to the learning of a second language only, and Third-Language Acquisition (TLA) to study the acquisition of any language beyond the second (this is due to complicated interactions between both the first and second languages that then have an effect on the third, something that doesn’t occur in SLA). SLA has numerous subfields that are discussed above, from phonetics to pragmatics, and includes other issues such as Cross-Linguistic Influence (CLI), Interlanguage Transfer (ILT), Individual Differences (ID), etc.
Historical Linguistics (or language variation and change) is the study of how languages change over time, and the reconstruction of earlier forms of a language (e.g. how Old English became Middle English became Modern English).
What are other things you might find linguists doing? Documentation and preservation of minority languages around the world, decipherment of ancient languages and scripts, improving language education, and more!
There’s a lot to study in linguistics, and we’ll stick with those that can help you learn a language or give you insight into the language you’re learning!