Recently, a reader asked me for advice about studying linguistics. She is an undergraduate in the USA at a college that does not offer a BA in linguistics and she likes math and language, particularly historical linguistics. I've posted advice to students before here, but this new request was a particularly interesting variation. What do you do if you're a smart 20 year old at a school that does not quite offer what you want? What follows is an edited version of the email I sent back:
I must begin with a warning: academic linguistics is a small field, there is precious little room for mediocrity. There are two kinds of academic linguists, the top 15% and the unemployed.
With that said, if your school doesn't offer linguistics as a degree, then I suggest psychology (the experimental, lab-based kind) or computer science. Get hands-on experience in lab settings where you are collecting and analyzing data. Learn basic scientific method. Both psychology and computer science can offer that. Computational linguistics is a hot field with lots of opportunities in all sub-fields of linguistics. Plus, they can get jobs, hehe. High paying jobs! Computational linguists are one the the few who can get jobs outside of academia, but the truth is most industry CL jobs are really programming jobs where your programing skills are the real reason you get a job; your Natural Language Processing (NLP) skills are little more than icing on the cake. The industry is really looking for engineers with some NLP experience, not linguists with some programming skills.
There's nothing wrong with majoring in math (I definitely think all 21st Century linguists should study math), though I think knowing stats is preferable, and that's really a separate field. There is some controversy regarding whether linear algebra or calculus is better for linguistics (see here, especially the comments), but I really do think stats is key.
Studying biology or genetics is a possibility (neurolinguistics is a hot field). Liberman posted about genetics and linguistics here.
Probably the single best thing you can do for yourself right now is work your way through the NLTK book. This will teach you about basic concepts, plus teach you basic tools as well, and it's completely free! You could also start learning the R language, a great stats based language that many linguists are using these days.
You could also work your way through Tarski's World because basic logic is a sound foundation for all disciplines.
If you want a serious challenge, get your hands on the late Partha Niyogi's ' The Computational Nature of Language Learning and Evolution'. He passed away recently, far too young for a rising star. He was a pioneer in using mathematical models to understand linguistics.
If you're interested in cognitive science and linguistics, I suggest regularly reading the Child's Play blog, written by two Stanford cognitive science grad students.
My general advice to any undergrad is simple: don't sweat your undergrad too much; it's the least important part of your education. Just get it done, regardless of which major you choose, and move on to the good stuff in grad school.
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