What Subfields Can You Study 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.
What Is the Field of Linguistics?
Linguistics is the scientific study of language. The field involves studying the many aspects of human language, including the sounds of speech, the physical gestures of mechanisms that create speech, how words and sentences are constructed in a given language, how spoken language is transcribed into written language, and the meaning―both literal and figurative―behind the words that we use.
Linguists are interested in how language relates to human history and society as well as how it also relates to cognition and thought. As a linguistics major, you’ll find that linguistics has many subfields or different concentrations you can specialize in, depending on your particular personal interests. We’re going to explore some of the questions that a few of these subfields are asking and attempting to answer. Keep in mind that there are more subfields than those mentioned below and even more specific branches within each subfield, but this is an overview of major topics within linguistics.
What Are Some Subfields or Concentrations Within Linguistics?
One subfield is psycholinguistics, which is concerned with how the mental representations and structure of language look in the brain and how language is mentally processed. There is substantial overlap between this subfield and some subfields of psychology and cognitive neuroscience.
To get an idea of what this subfield is about, think about how different words and meanings might be associated with each other. For example, if you hear the word “dog,” does that also mentally activate things meaningfully associated with the concept of “dog,” such as cat, doghouse, or leash? Does processing the word “dog” mentally activate things structurally associated with the word “dog,” such as the words “log,” “dot,” or “dig?”
People who study psycholinguistics are always asking these questions about how words are represented in the mind and how they’re activated in the brain.
Another subfield is sociolinguistics. This subfield deals with how we want to define and understand the variations that arise among speakers of a language. A substantial amount of research in this subfield is dedicated to the comparison of different dialects and accents and the exploration of how they develop.
A question sociolinguists might ask is “How does the way you say something impact how people perceive you and what you have to say?” To answer this question, they delve into specific things, such as the region someone is from, whether a person speaks a native language or a second language, the people someone grew up around, or racial and ethnic identity, socioeconomic status.
Semantics and Pragmatics
Two related subfields of linguistics are semantics and pragmatics. Semantics is the study of literal meaning. There are different kinds of semantics, such as formal semantics and lexical semantics, but when thinking about semantics you can simply think “definitions.”
Pragmatics, on the other hand, is the study of meaning in context. This is concerned with what you say, such as things that are implied or references that your chosen words make to the real world. Pragmatics is essentially what you mean when you say something, even if it’s not what you literally said. A classic pragmatics example is “I’m cold” vs. “Close the window.” Someone who is cold could simply say, “I’m cold,” which is literal, but they could also convey this idea in an implied manner by asking, “Can you close the window?”
Sometimes, you’ll say something with one literal meaning that can convey something else entirely when put into context. Pragmatics is interested in pulling these different meanings apart and seeing what people mean in this nonliteral, figurative way when they use specific constructions.
Historical Linguistics and Comparative Linguistics
There’s also the subfield of historical linguistics, which is the study of language change over time. This subfield asks questions like “Where did this specific word come from?” and “What did early human language look like?” Historical linguists can approach these questions by reconstructing old languages based on the information we have from present languages and preserved samples. A closely related subfield is comparative linguistics. This subfield involves comparing present-day languages to determine which are linked to each other and which evolved from the same parent language.
Computational Linguistics and Natural Language Processing
The biggest expanding linguistics subfields are computational linguistics and natural language processing. These closely related subfields have seen a great increase in research and popularity over the past couple of decades. Computational linguistics puts a huge emphasis on computational modeling and applications of linguistics in tech. Natural language processing is about teaching computers how to process and analyze large amounts of natural language data so they can learn language.
The approaches to teaching computers about natural human language are very different from teaching children. People who work in this subfield give computers a massive sample of natural language data. Language online and in archived literature is extrapolated by computers to learn the modern everyday usage of language.
Obviously, this has a ton of practical applications, and it’s an important trend in tech right now. We need to teach artificial intelligence (AI) how to understand language and communicate with us. Linguists have a substantial role in creating products like Siri and Alexa because they have to help teach these virtual assistants natural language.
Another subfield of linguistics is language acquisition—how children acquire language. This subfield is similar to psycholinguistics and is related to developmental psychology. If you think about it, there’s a lot that goes into acquiring a language.
Learning a word based on a real-world reference is pretty hard. For example, if a child sees someone point to a rabbit and say a word, that word could be referring to anything that has to do with that rabbit. The person could be talking about the rabbit as a whole, or its legs, or its fur, or the fact that the rabbit is hopping.
Language acquisition is about finding out how children solve this referential problem. One of the central questions in language acquisition is: If you’re taught a word, how do you know what it means?
The last major subfield we’re going to talk about is applied linguistics. This subfield explores how we can use knowledge to change real-world outcomes in the classroom and second-language acquisition. Some people who study applied linguistics go on to work in fields like education or speech-language pathology.
It’s easy to think of language as this one big idea, but it has so many intricate component parts that make it into something that’s communicative, productive, and fascinating. As a linguistics major, you will likely take many classes that focus on the foundations of different subfields. Linguistics is an interdisciplinary field with many paths for its majors to go down. Explore the subfields and what they have to offer.