Give me information relating to Linguistics and Environmental Analysis as it pertains to my education.
May 12, 2010 8:31 PM   Subscribe

I am a high school senior, about to go to a liberal arts college, and am wondering a few things about a few 'intended fields of study' (Linguistics, Environmental Analysis, and more?).

I know I have quite a bit of time to decide, and I recognize that, but I am already interested in, and therefore want to learn more about, the fields of Linguistics and Environmental Science/Studies/Analysis. Pretty different, I know, but hopefully I'll be able to explore both sufficiently!

I went to the public library today (one of the biggest in Southern California) and spoke with the reference specialist. They didn't have many books about linguistics, but did have some scarce materials about the career (salary, possible employers, et al). That said, I would like to know more about the former: what linguistics is all about.

Any information is welcome: books, websites, any and all suggestions. I am interested in linguistics because I love exploring language. I love thinking about how a particular language influences a collective consciousness, and from helping my mother's special-ed students I know I would love helping others develop the ability to form words. Again, any and all suggestions are welcome.

I am also very interested in Environmental Studies/Policy/Science. It's long been a passion of mine, and I'd love to hear any suggestions you might have for someone wanting to know what it is to be an environmental scientist/activist/researcher. Again, this could include books, blogs, anecdotes, and anything else you might deem useful or thought provoking.

Again, this is no holds barred (what a linguistically intriguing idiom), so don't hesitate to suggest other fields or careers I should look into, but if you do you could help me out by supplying some information (books, etc) too.

Money is never an issue. I'm not concerned with potential salary as long as I am making a living.

Thanks for all your help.
posted by makethemost to Education (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to read Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct. It's accessible to your age/education level. Pinker's pretty awful sometimes, but when he's sticking to his field, he's great. There seems to be a lot of leakage between linguistics and cognitive science these days.

If you're interested in stuff about culture/language, you should at the very least familiarize yourself with the status of Sapir-Whorf these days. I believe the strong version of the theory is more or less dead, but I know there's still debate about the gray areas.

(not a linguist, but casually interested and one of my former students is doing linguistics at Dartmouth now)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:59 PM on May 12, 2010

I majored in Linguistics, and not as a fancy word for "I speak many languages." Linguistics as I studied it was an offshoot of anthropology. Basically people would end up in foreign cultures and have to figure out a means to communicate. Or studying ancient artifacts and wanting to know what the squiggles said and what they meant to the people writing them. That resulted in people studying languages. Collecting data, putting together basic dictionaries and phrase books, learning about the cultural context of words and ideas, developing different models for writing sounds, parsing sound groups, representing grammar...

I like to tell people it's a self-selecting major. Most people find the basic classes and excersizes beyond boring. And some of us think word origins and how people think about words just about the coolest thing in the world. My suggestion for people considering linguistics is always, take a class & check it out.

Linguistics is kind of hard to describe in its particulars because it intersects with so many different things. Basically, anywhere language and another field come into contact, linguists can find a niche. Want to be an elementary school teacher? Lots and LOTS of teaching curriculums suggest some linguistics because knowing something about how kids process language is a very useful tool. Want to teach computers to talk? You're going to have to know something about grammar structures, symbolic logic, and how collections of words turn into meaning. Fascinated by neurological disorders? Language is a really cool brain function.

The connections can be a lot more obscure than the above, but you get the idea. I'm told even geology has its subset of linguists beavering away.

Linguistics can be a major in and of itself, but prettymuch everyone I knew who actually used their degree was either a double-major or went on to grad school.

A lot of colleges don't offer linguistics as a major, so if you get serious about it, either choose a college that does, or expect to transfer later to one that does.
posted by Ys at 9:13 PM on May 12, 2010

Linguistics enthusiast here. Not a real linguist.

Have you seen web sites like You can plug in a field of study and it will tell you the best schools for that major.

You can learn a lot about a field by looking at the course catalog online. Look at the different specialties available. Read the course descriptions to get a feel for the basics. (Sometimes they're a little cryptic, but you can usually get a good idea.) The catalog will also list permanent faculty within the department. Feel free to contact any of them for more info. They will gladly provide as much info as they can because they want to attract you to their school.

I was a Spanish major. We had to take a Spanish linguistics course, which was specific to the evolution of Spanish from the Latin. [How did the word "spatulum" become "espalda"? With specific terms for things like adding an "e" to the front, and the transposition of the "L" and "T/D" sounds.] You might consider a double major of linguistics and a foreign language. I also took an intro linguistics class. One assignment we had was to provide a definition and etymology for all the made up words in Lewis Carrol's Jabberwocky poem. Fun! (Don't cheat by getting the annotated version of Alice in Wonderland, though!)

Note that teaching someone how to speak (as you mentioned) is Speech Language Pathology, not linguistics.

Sorry I don't have more concrete info, but hopefully this will give you a starting point for doing your own research.
posted by wwartorff at 9:25 PM on May 12, 2010

Linguistics is a very interesting field of study. Always have additional interests that are related to Linguistics (social issues regarding languages, human culture, classical literature, communication studies, etc) to stay constantly motivated and attentive.
posted by sanskrtam at 9:48 PM on May 12, 2010

I majored in linguistics because I loved it, and still love it. BUT: Unless you are interested in going into academia or computer-related applications of linguistics (like speech recognition, automatic translation, etc.) I would highly recommend double majoring in something else. I realized that I love linguistics, but in more of a to-toy-around-with way than in a I-want-to-do-this-with-my-life way, and I think I would be having a slightly easier time now-- one year out of college-- pursuing my new goals if I had a major in one of my different interests. The fact is, most people still don't really understand what linguistics is. I'm all for college as a place of pure learning, liberal arts, etc., but I really do wish I had finished my planned double major in English (still commonly perceived as 'useless', but really, I think it gives a much clearer idea to employers what your potential skills and background are). Ultimately, I agree with the general consensus that majors don't matter a ton, but I would seriously consider what you think you might want to do after college. That doesn't mean pinning yourself down, just keeping options open if they seem likely.
posted by threeants at 9:59 PM on May 12, 2010

The upside of nobody knowing what linguistics is is that you can often spin it how you like. Sometimes, to potential employers, I make my degree sound almost like a communications degree (that sound you just heard is every professor I ever had fainting), as if hunkering down into the finer points of Eastern Armenian subordinate clauses qualifies me to write press releases.
posted by threeants at 10:03 PM on May 12, 2010

I majored in linguistics because I knew that I loved languages, and I wanted to major in something language-related, but I could not possibly pick just one language. Hence, linguistics. (I then followed this up by taking approximately five different languages in my spare time.) And, in a sense, it's kind of like majoring in every language ever (modulo one's beliefs about Universal Grammar, of course).

I'd suggest flipping through a textbook to see if you like it -- O'Grady's Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction is what gets used in all the intro classes at my current department, and is a fairly good look at the major theoretical subfields and a chapter on possibly every applied field you could think of. When I was an excited high school student, I really liked Anthony Burgess' A Mouthful of Air, but I'm not sure if it still holds up; it's been a while since I've read it. (I was the sort of excited high school student who went to a college because they swore they had the best undergrad theoretical linguistics program in the US, so in retrospect it's a good thing I liked linguistics, huh?)

To get an idea of the kinds of things linguists actually care about, the big listserv is The Linguist List. To get an idea of what linguists snark about in their free time, read Language Log.

One of the things I love about linguistics is that it gives you, essentially, extremely intense training about how to be analytical. (At least in the programs I have attended.) You get very good at coming up with theories to fit observable data very, very fast. It's a challenge, but it's fun. (Apparently linguists do very well in law, or so I am told.) And as a bonus, you get a part of your brain that stays constantly alert for whenever anyone says any sentence that sounds ungrammatical (in the linguists' sense of the word), and you can't turn it off ever. Wait, maybe that's not a plus.
posted by sineala at 11:08 PM on May 12, 2010

The coolest thing about linguistics is that it's tangentially related to so many other interesting disciplines. You could ultimately decide to be a psycholinguist, or a linguistic anthropologist, or a computational linguist, etc. Speech and hearing therapy might be of particular interest to you, since you've enjoyed working with special education students.

Start off with Pinker's The Language Instinct. If you end up enjoying it, you might want to check out some of George Lakoff's books. In particular, I'd recommend Metaphors We Live By and Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Both books examine how our use of language reflects/affects the way we think about other things.
posted by arianell at 11:11 PM on May 12, 2010

As a liberal arts grad, I agree with threeants. Given the distribution requirements of a liberal arts school, you're pretty much guaranteed a major and minor just by fulfilling the basics. Definitely get into linguistics. If you have a chance, perhaps you can cultivate an interest in another subject, or even a complementary subject. If your second major can help you find a lucrative job, that's kind of a bonus. In my case, just by paying attention to the requirements and planning ahead, up until I took a foreign term on a sort of spur of the moment decision, I was on track to graduate with three majors in three different distribution areas (English lit, philosophy, and theater, or what I like to refer to as Unemployment Studies). If you approach school with a little planning, you could easily study your main love, and pick up another field of interest quite easily. It's kind of the best thing about liberal arts.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:22 PM on May 12, 2010

In terms of departmental funding in American universities linguistics itself as a coherent field has gotten to be pretty marginalized. The heady days of faith in structuralism (over-arching cross-cultural "truths" that could be discovered though comparative analysis of different languages) are long gone.

But. . . . as mentioned, more "hard" science fields like neuroscience have become and/or remain heavily invested in the the study of language. You should consider how "doing linguistics" these days might not actually involve getting a degree from an actual linguistics department, but maybe from a bio/neuroscience/pro-med program or an anthropology/sociology approach.

Linguistics Departments were quickly becoming an anachronism when I was in graduate school not all that long ago. But the study of language is still quite active and vital, albeit in a multi-disciplinary sort of way that's not always easy to describe.

And if you do study linguistics, do yourself a favor and actually become fluent in another language. A linguistics degree might not open many career paths for you, but knowing Arabic or Chinese certainly will these days.
posted by bardic at 12:30 AM on May 13, 2010

Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human Nature by Ray Jackendoff is a great introduction to linguistics. It's like a shorter, less academically opinionated, version of The Language Instinct.

And I think it's funny that everyone's answer to "this is what linguistics is" sounds different from everyone else's. There is a TON of variation within the field. Even as an undergraduate, I found that I could head in the direction of fuzzy humanities-esque stuff like historical lingusitics or sociolinguistics, or spend time with the more solid (well, okay, debatable, but at least more difficult), logic based stuff like syntax or semantics.
posted by hought20 at 4:44 AM on May 13, 2010

Since all the answers so far have been about linguistics, I'll try and chip in with some info on Environmental Studies.

Almost anywhere you go, it's necessarily a multi-disciplinary program. You'll end up having to take courses in biology, chemistry, political science, economics, engineering, maybe even something like architecture, history, or even religion. To be honest, I found my studies to be pretty unfocused because of that, but of course your mileage may vary depending on the school.

I think what might be expected is that you find one of those niches that really captures your interest, and focus intensely on that. For instance, maybe you find that environmental politics is what you're really passionate about, and so you end up doing most of your work in Poli Sci. For me personally, I grew kind of disenchanted with everything except for the biology, so I'm now in graduate school doing ecological fieldwork.

As for reference material, again it's just such a broad field that it's difficult to find resources that fully address everything. I'l recommend two books that don't necessarily provide concrete information, but do provide a really thought-provoking philosophical framework to approach environmental issues: Encounters With the Archdruid, and The Control of Nature, both by John McPhee.

Good luck! And feel free to send me a note if you have any other questions.
posted by goateebird at 5:15 AM on May 13, 2010

_Control of Nature_ was a *really* fun read. It was assigned to me in an interdisciplinary geology class. John McPhee used to write for The New Yorker, and is a wonderfully accessible writer. Seconding the recommendation as an intro to thinking about how environmental geology shows up in the real world. The section on "stream piracy" is a fascinating look at how naturally occuring shifts of waterways keep New Orleans under constant threat of losing its port city status, and the war the Army Corps of Engineers has been waging against that eventuality.
posted by Ys at 7:28 AM on May 13, 2010

I'm a grad student in linguistics right now. It's a fascinating field — but you're right, it isn't always immediately obvious how to turn it into a career once you graduate.

Now, plenty of people major in linguistics and then go and get a job doing something else. That's totally cool. But if you want a Career In Linguistics, here's a few paths you could go down:
  1. Since you mention special ed, you should definitely look into speech-language pathology. SLP's work with kids who are developmentally disabled and need help acquiring language skills, and with kids or adults who have gone through physical or neurological trauma and need to "re-learn" how to speak. It's fascinating (but hard) work, the pay isn't bad, and it's in greater demand than a lot of other linguistics-related subjects. (This would probably mean getting a Master's in speech-language pathology after you finish your undergrad degree.)
  2. Maybe also think about audiology? It's less about language-as-communication and more about the nitty-gritty details of how the ears work. And it's also a narrower niche — there are just more SLPs than audiologists. But if you like linguistics and are comfortable with hard science, you could be well suited for it. (This would mean getting a doctoral degree in audiology after you finish your undergrad degree.)
  3. For the past ten or twenty years, computational linguistics has been hot. Comp ling is what makes Google run, for instance. It's about processing huge piles of linguistic data efficiently, extracting the patterns from audio or text, and building useful tools based on those patterns. One caveat, though: computational linguists are programmers first and linguists second. Software companies are perfectly happy to hire a hotshot programmer who doesn't know much about formal linguistics; they won't even consider a linguist who can't write good code. (No advanced degree necessary here. Companies will hire you straight out of college — or even before you graduate, if you're good. Best to do some summer internships while you're still in college, though.)
  4. Applied linguistics is not hot the way comp. ling. is, but it's definitely in demand, and it's definitely going to stay in demand. Among other things, applied linguists work on figuring out the best way to teach people a second language. That line of research is not going to fall out of fashion any time soon. And then of course there's actually teaching people a second language, which is also going to stay important. (There's a lot of options here. You can get a Ph.D. in applied linguistics and do research on language teaching methods, and/or train other people to be language teachers. But you can work as a foreign language teacher or an ESL teacher without the Ph.D. Some people get a Master's in foreign language ed or ESL; others just get a teaching certificate. The details vary from state to state.)
  5. Last but not least, you could go into traditional academia. That would mean teaching and doing research in formal linguistics (the Noam Chomsky/Stephen Pinker/George Lakoff stuff people are talking about upthread) and/or doing linguistic fieldwork — going out into the world, studying minority languages, and sharing what you learn. I'll warn you though, this is totally fascinating stuff, but the academic job market is terrible, and is likely to stay terrible for the foreseeable future. If you really want to be a professor, give it a shot, but please for the love of god have a Plan B in mind. (Hint: any of the above would make a good Plan B.)
My advice while you're an undergrad? Don't close any doors until you have to. Take all the linguistics classes you like, on whatever subject strikes your fancy. Try a computer science course your first year if you've never done any programming, because there's money in it if you discover that it suits you, but don't worry too much if it doesn't suit you. Look into audiology/SLP programs in your area and see what their admissions requirements are. Maybe see if the career center at your school can introduce you to alumni who are in those fields. And then follow your nose and see what happens.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:40 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

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