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What Kinds of Courses Do You Take as a Linguistics Major?

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Aja Altenhof in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.


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You’ve probably heard of psychology and neuroscience, and you know that some people pursue learning foreign languages. If any of those subjects sound interesting, you should consider majoring in linguistics. It’s the study of language and its structure, and there are many fascinating subfields within the discipline. In this article, you’ll learn about the courses offered to linguistics majors and the classes outside of the major that could supplement your study.




Like most majors, your introductory courses will be large lectures that cover the basics. Linguistics is generally a small major, so its lectures will probably be a bit smaller than a more conventional major, such as psychology or computer science. 


The required courses for linguistics are typically subjects like phonetics, where you look at the sound structure of language and syntax, and phonology, where you learn grammar trees and how they look in different languages compared to English. There can be other mandated classes—for example, the University of Pennsylvania requires you to take sociolinguistics. Depending on the college that you attend, you’ll likely have to take phonetics, phonology, and syntax. These will provide you with a foundation for further study.


Higher-Level Classes


Elective Options


After you finish your required courses, you can begin to choose different electives in the field. You can explore different topics that you’re interested in and get a feel for what kind of research or languages you like. You’ll also be able to identify the work that you prefer. You can find out how you like to look at language at the descriptive or societal and social-economic level or how it’s structured in the brain.


These electives are usually small lectures and seminars. As you start taking higher-level classes, they tend to get even smaller. Linguistics majors aren’t too common, so these classrooms won’t get crowded.


A linguistics major might take a class about the various writing systems that exist in human language. You’ll learn about different languages and how to translate or transcribe them. This will involve studying the rules of the writing system and receiving a document written in a foreign language, along with a dictionary. You’ll have to understand the rules of the writing system, and you’ll be tasked with explaining what’s happening in the document.


In this kind of class, you’ll get to look at cuneiform or Mayan glyphs or hieroglyphics and learn about decipherment. You could tackle an undeciphered writing system or study old historical documents and use them to interpret a text in front of you and translate it into English. It can feel like you’re in an adventure film, like “Indiana Jones.”


Much of linguistics involves descriptive work. You’ll enter a language environment and describe what the language you’re observing is like: what patterns you see, what rules there are, etc. Linguistics classes can also feature experiments in which people respond to language in real time and linguists record their observations.


Neurolinguistics, or a class that looks into connections between neuroscience and language, will teach you interesting things about how certain types of language processing activate different parts of the brain. In many introductory psychology or cognitive science courses, you’ll learn that language is processed in the left hemisphere of the brain. A class like neurolinguistics will teach you about the specific places in the brain that language lights up. For example, a particular brain area will activate when you hear a sentence that doesn’t make sense, like: “I went to the banana.” All this information helps linguists understand how we process language.


Advanced Research


You might take a class on running a language experiment so you can do research of your own. This course will cover planning and designing a full experiment from start to finish. You will come up with your own ideas of what you want to find out, and then you’ll figure out the specific question that you want to answer, the ethical considerations that you should be aware of, and how to perform the experiment. After this, you can analyze the data that you’ve found and write up your own work.


This type of research might be appealing if you think that you’d want to do a senior thesis or capstone project at the end of your studies. It can also inspire you to take up work in the department lab; there are generally offerings available to interested students who know how to do the work.


Non-major Courses


To supplement your work as a linguistics major, you should take classes from other departments. These can help you with your work as a linguist by broadening your understanding of the field and its applications. It will also help your job prospects, especially if you choose to dual major.


Studying a foreign language is a great option if you want to challenge yourself. Look into the foreign languages offered by colleges that you’re interested in, as most schools offer the standard languages, but some might have ancient languages too. These could help you understand how language works and develops.


Several fields are closely related to linguistics, including psychology, philosophy, cognitive science, and even computer science. You might be surprised how far your study of linguistics can take you and the doors that it opens. It’s a field with many interdisciplinary elements and career trajectories. Linguists encourage you to explore whatever you’re interested in so you can see how it all ties back to your chosen discipline.