*This post is coming from someone who lives in the United States, so every time I say college, for those overseas, I’m referring to university. But I’ll mostly be addressing the American education system.
Going to college is a big step in our lives; it’s when we’re trying to figure out who we are, what we like, and potentially what we want to do for the rest of our lives. If you already have a vague idea of what area of study you want to go into, you’re pretty much ahead of the game because a lot of people don’t know what they want to study as they leave high school (and who knows, you might switch in the middle of your college anyways).
If you love languages but are curious about linguistics, here’s what you could do to go about figuring out what you want to major in, and what the general difference is within these majors at college.
Language-ers interested in linguistics…. If you’re going straight to a four-year university, I recommend taking an intro to linguistics class to get a good idea of what linguistics is like. I know my perception of linguistics before taking classes versus after changed drastically, but that’s what college is for–experimentation! You may or may not like it, but at least you get it a shot, right?
For those going to two-year universities planning to transfer, many community colleges don’t have linguistics classes. I recommend looking in the anthropology department to see if there is a course that has to do with language or the nature of language, but if not, take as many different foreign language classes as you can (explore languages from different language families if you can). I know languages =/= linguistics, but after leaving community college having taken French and Mandarin (in addition to knowing Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish), it gave me a good idea of some of the concepts professors would talk about in linguistics classes. For example…Mandarin and Japanese have classifiers, and Portuguese and Spanish have imperfect and perfect tenses.
Once you transfer, please see paragraph one of this section (take an intro to linguistics class and see if you like it).
Linguistics Majors: How can I describe linguistics majors? There are many, many branches of linguistics and chances are if you’re a linguistics major, you will have a chance to explore these different branches through classes throughout your undergraduate college career (examples: morphology, semantics, phonetics, phonology, syntax, typology, historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, applied linguistics, psycholinguistics, the list goes on forever). Linguistics is overall…the study of the structure of language (no, not sentence structure). You learn about constructions and elements of languages without learning the actual language. You may have examples in class in Turkish, Mandarin, Ibibio, Korean, or Spanish to demonstrate ideas that the professor is talking about, without having to learn these languages or without having prior knowledge of these languages.
I know that’s kind of a lot to take in without me having explained very much. I guess….if you think concepts of languages are interesting, you may like linguistics. That being said, classes are hard to talk about because each department at each university is different, but depending on what branch you like, you may be able to take multiple classes in that area or something that relates to that area. In my opinion linguistics can be an analytical major, there can be a lot of reading depending on the professor, and some branches will resonate better with you than others (don’t let this discourage you though). Many people who major in linguistics go into academia (more school + research), teaching, speech pathology, translation and interpretation, linguistic fieldwork! which is also cool. But linguistics can be a very flexible major if you plan on doing something else with your life.
Do more research because I do not have the gift of explaining what linguistics is.
Foreign Language Majors: Foreign language majors are great for people who are passionate about one specific language, and not only the language, but the history of where this language is spoken, the culture, and the literature. I was originally a Spanish and Portuguese major, but when I looked at my class requirements, I realized I had to take history classes, literature classes, and linguistics classes (though I wasn’t complaining about this one). I am not the best history or literature student, because I know how much reading is involved in these two areas of studies. I like reading, but sometimes the topic just isn’t interesting…. notice I mentioned linguistics. Linguistics of X language may be included in your program but might be limited due to the amount of total classes you have to take.
Thank goodness for double majors and minors…. if best comes to best (because languages and linguistics are both great subjects), the American education system allows you to double major or minor in additional subjects. It may take longer than four years to graduate, but if you’re really passionate about what you’re doing, if may be worth it to you. You can study both languages and linguistics, just be aware that studying linguistics is not for everyone, and studying a foreign language (+history + literature) is not for everyone.
For Americans planning to go to college and thinking about these two paths of language-type majors, I recommend looking at potential colleges (if you’re close to graduating from high school or transferring from community college) and seeing what are the required classes, the kinds of classes that the college offers, seeing that they even offer it as a major or just a minor, maybe they have joint majors…because all of this varies from college to college. Good luck!