Linguistics degrees can lead to jobs in translation, interpretation, research and language education. Get more info about your career options with a degree in this field, and find out what you'd learn in an undergraduate or graduate linguistics program.

Is Linguistics for Me?

Career Overview

Linguistics encompasses the history, meaning, development and structure of words and languages from both scientific and cultural perspectives. Some linguists focus on how people acquire language as children or as non-native speakers, while others are interested in how the brain processes language biologically. Modern linguistics also extends into the realms of artificial intelligence, psychology and computer science. With an expertise in linguistics, you could enter any number of professions. Many linguists become interpreters, translators or language teachers. You might also want to do field research, studying how language and culture affect one another.

Employment Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of May 2013, the average annual salary for interpreters and translators was $47,920, while that of foreign language and literature professors was $66,300 ( noted that in April 2014, the salary range for most linguists was $32,987-$106,140.

The BLS also reported that during the 2012-2022 decade, employment for interpreters and translators was projected to expand by 46%, much faster than average, thanks to the effects of globalization and international trade. Many interpreters and translators work independently but, depending on skills and certifications, others find steady employment as linguistic specialists for federal agencies or non-profit organizations.

Job growth for postsecondary foreign language and literature teachers is expected to be 15%, slower than for interpreters but still in the faster than average range for all occupations. Possible budget cuts to education programs may decrease the number of teaching positions, but this could be balanced by a greater need for teachers if postsecondary school enrollment continues its rapid rise as predicted.

How Can I Work in Linguistics?

Education in Linguistics

You can find bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree programs in linguistics. Bachelor's degree programs teach foundation concepts such as syntax, semantics and phonology (the organization of language sounds) along with intensive foreign language studies. Graduate-level linguistics programs continue these studies, while also exploring the linguistic structures of specific cultures in historical and modern contexts.

Linguistics Specializations

Degree programs at all levels may allow you to select a specialization, such as sociolinguistics (the study of how society and language affect one another), psycholinguistics (the study of how biology and psychology combine in the brain to enable language acquisition) or phonetics. Other options are to concentrate on the linguistics of a specific culture, group or region, such as Semitic, African, romance or sign languages; some institutions offer separate degree programs in these areas.

Education for Interpreters and Translators

If you're interested in becoming an interpreter or translator, a bachelor's degree in a foreign language could be helpful since the key requirement of the job is being fluent in English and one or more foreign languages. To further increase your expertise, you might also earn a master's degree in the same or another foreign language. You'd learn not only foreign language linguistics, but also the cultural aspects of the chosen language, including literature, film, history and cuisine. Some programs offer and/or require a study-abroad experience, as well as research and a written thesis.

Certifications for Interpreters and Translators

Interpreters and translators can choose to become certified, which is a good way to document your expertise for potential employers. Certification generally involves meeting education requirements and passing an exam through a professional organization. For instance, those interested in the healthcare sector can earn credentials from the Certification Commission of Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI), which offers certification for Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic interpreters and associate-level credentials for other languages. Similarly, aspiring translators can become certified through the American Translators Association. Continuing education is required in order to maintain certifications.

Education for Foreign Language Teachers

To become a foreign language teacher, you'll need at least a master's degree to teach in high schools (which also requires licensing by the state) or 2-year postsecondary institutions, such as community colleges. Teaching at the university level calls for a doctoral degree (Ph.D.) in linguistics or a foreign language. Ph.D. programs usually take about four years to complete and focus on a specific area related to the foreign language, such as etymology, a historical period or a specific region where the language is spoken. Alternatively, you could focus on an area of applied linguistics, such as sociolinguistics or phonetics. Ph.D. candidates must do research and a dissertation to graduate.

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