By Olivia Saunders
When I was home for spring break, I caught up with my former co-worker and friend Ryan. While we were out to lunch he asked me cliché questions about school, one of which was “What’s your major again?”
“Communication,” I replied.
“Oh, so do you want to be a speech therapist or something?” he asked.
This remark got me thinking. Ryan was not wrong to assume speech therapy falls under the communication discipline. But there is an even more specialized discipline for those heading toward that career: linguistics.
First of all, I am not majoring in communication to become a speech therapist. But my conversation with Ryan made me realize that the field of linguistics may be misunderstood or even overlooked. So I set out on a personal quest to discover more and found that career opportunities in linguistics reach far beyond speech therapy.
UC Santa Barbara’s department of Linguistics describes it as “a field that would seek explanations for language as a fundamental human activity, through an understanding of how languages are used by their speakers.” Linguistics is the study of language, and language is just one tool used in communication.
After digging further into UCSB’s online linguistics resources, I found a presentation on non-academic job opportunities for linguists made by Onna Nelson, a graduate student mentor for UCSB’s LingClub. She said that natural language processing, speech-language pathology, and English as a foreign language are “the most in-demand careers for linguists.”
Let’s take a closer look at these high-demand career options for linguistics.
Natural language processing (NLP) looks at how computers understand human language. Innovators in this field help develop technologies such as iPhone’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. Speech-language pathologists (SLP) study and treat speech, language, and communication disorders. This is the formal term for “speech therapist.” English as a foreign language (EFL) linguists examine the process that non-English speakers undergo when learning the English language.
And there’s more. Beyond NLP, SLP, or EFL, there are still many other ways to apply a linguistics degree. The fields of law, business, and education all need linguists. Linguists can even work in Hollywood as accent coaches.
To get an even closer look at what it’s like to study linguistics, I reached out to Allie Cook, a second-year UCSB student majoring in linguistics with an emphasis in speech and hearing disorders. Cook entered UCSB as a French studies major, but quickly switched to linguistics after taking her first class in the department, Language in Life.
“I was inspired to pick linguistics because there are endless opportunities that can come out of it,” Cook explained. “There is such a wide variety of topics discussed that I am never bored.”
UCSB’s Linguistics department offers over 60 courses for undergraduate students. These courses include Language in Power, Endangered Languages, Introduction to Phonology, Computational Linguistics, and Animal Communication, to name a few.
After earning her bachelor’s degree, Cook wants to attend graduate school and become a speech-language pathologist. In the meantime, she spends her free time volunteering at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital assisting speech pathologists and observing therapy sessions with geriatric patients. Cook is “loving every minute” of her volunteer work and wants to explore working in schools with children too. Needless to say, Cook is a proud Linguistics student who is eager to put her degree to use.
For my part, the next time I tell someone my major is communication and they ask if I want to be a speech therapist, I will be able to give them a more informative response. First, I will tell them that speech therapy actually falls under the study of linguistics, not communication, and a linguistics degree can be applied to many different careers.
Tech companies constantly rely on linguists to build systems like Siri and Google Translate that can perform speech recognition, translation, and grammar checking. Programmers must collaborate with linguists to develop software that can successfully understand and mimic natural human language. Every industry uses some form of language, so every industry can use some type of linguist.
Olivia Saunders is a second-year UC Santa Barbara student, majoring in Communication. She wrote this piece in her Writing Program course Journalism for Web and Social Media.