What is Linguistics?

Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. A growing and exciting field, it has links to diverse fields including cognitive psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, computer science, artificial intelligence, sociology, language teaching, anthropology, and education. Linguistics is a key component of the emerging field of cognitive science, the study of the structure and functioning of human cognitive processes.

How do children learn to speak? How is language represented in the mind? What do all languages, including sign languages, have in common? How is language different from the communication systems used by whales, bees, and chimpanzees? What do we need to program into a computer in order to converse with it? How might we think about linguistic controversies, including debates about official languages, Ebonics, gender bias, and bilingualism in education? Linguistics attempts to answer each of these questions and covers a surprisingly broad range of topics related to language and communication.

The Linguistics Program at Northeastern
The linguistics program at NU is one of the smaller majors, with between 50 and 60 students taking a major or minor in Linguistics. Our students have the advantage of generally smaller class sizes than the larger majors, with class sizes of between 10 and 30 students. Additionally, our students get to know their fellow students and faculty members more easily than in the larger majors. The Linguistics club is also very active, and is always looking for new members. They hold regular “Game nights” with pizza, as well as sponsoring events, like organizing invited speakers, and attending linguistics events around Boston.

The courses offered in Linguistics at NU focus on both the structural side of language, and the socio-cultural side. Courses that focus on the structure of language include morphology (words and their structures), phonetics and phonology (sounds and sound structures), syntax (sentence structures), and semantics (meanings of words and sentences). Courses focusing on the socio-cultural use of language include Language and Culture, Sociolinguistics, History of the English Language, and Language and Gender. And of course, our students study other languages! Northeastern offers a wide range of languages, including Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Arabic, Swahili, American Sign Language, and others.

We also emphasize a hands-on approach to learning at NU. In the classroom, we emphasize doing linguistics: we include lots of possibilities for students to analyze actual linguistic data. And we don’t want our students to just have in-classroom experience; we encourage them to gain real-world experience through co-op and research. Some students are interested in applying their knowledge to practical applications, and go to work for Boston-area software firms, where they work on projects that develop new applications for speech recognition, grammar checkers, etc. Other students are more interested in having a research experience, and work in one of the psycholinguistics labs at NU or at other labs in Boston. One student recently worked for a Sign Language lab in Boston, and traveled to South Africa to help collect data there. Still others are more interested in teaching, or other fields. We have had students placed in ESL (English as a Second Language) programs in Boston, in law firms, and a variety of other places. Because our program is small, we are often able to help students find a position that truly matches their interests in the field.

Additionally, we encourage our students to take advantage of Northeastern’s extensive travel abroad program. In the past, students have studied in France, Britain, Costa Rica, Egypt, Spain, Ghana, Australia and New Zealand.

  • Linguistics Program
    545 Nightingale Hall
    Northeastern University
    360 Huntington Avenue
    Boston, MA 02115