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First-Year Focus


What is Linguistics?

"The marvelous thing is that even in studying Linguistics, we find that the universe as a whole is patterned, ordered, and to some degree intelligible to us." - Kenneth L. Pike

Linguistics is the scientific study of language that examines its structures, how it is used to convey meaning, how it is acquired and processed in the mind and brain, its social functions, and how it evolves over timespans of individuals and societies. Linguists look for patterns in the articulation, perception, and sequencing of speech sounds, in the structure of words and sentences, and in the association of these patterns with different types of meaning, using empirical and computational methods to investigate languages in all their varieties, from all parts of the world.

Why Study Linguistics?

Language is a complex, species-specific system made up of several components (sounds, words, sentences, and meaning). The study of linguistics gives us a unique window on the structure of the human mind and the mind's activity. Linguistics contributes to advances in many real world applications, including the development of technologies for speech and natural language processing, second language learning, and diagnostics and interventions for individuals with atypical language function. Additional information can be found at the Linguistic Society of America.

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Linguistics majors pursue careers in many different fields such as:

  • Acting and Acting Training
  • Advertising
  • Communication Consulting
  • Computer Industry
  • Editorial Work
  • Educational Testing
  • Foreign Service
  • Foreign Language Teaching
  • Government
  • Journalism
  • Language Documentation
  • Legal Practice
  • Lexicography
  • Marketing
  • Medicine
  • Teaching English as a Second Language
  • Technical Writing
  • Translation and Interpreting

Some students use the BA in Linguistics to prepare for professional schools, or clinical programs in:

  • Business
  • Communication Sciences and Disorders
  • Law
  • Library/Information Science
  • Medicine
  • Speech Pathology

Other students continue their study of Linguistics in MA and Ph.D. programs, either in Linguistics or related fields like:

  • Anthropology
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Bilingual Education
  • Cognitive Science
  • Computer Science
  • Music
  • Philosophy
  • Psychology


Linguistics students will develop critical, scientific thinking skills through learning across the subfields in linguistic science. Through course work, students will gain a solid understanding of scientific approaches to the study of language, using the scientific method of hypothesis testing, theoretically guided empirical exploration, and the application of scientific argumentation in the construction of linguistic theories. Students will gain understanding of the complexity of language in its formal, cognitive, social, and physical aspects, and be able to relate language data to theories of linguistic structure and processing. Students will acquire skills in experimental methods, computational methods, and statistical modeling for the analysis of language data. Courses in the program introduce students to major themes in linguistics related to sound (Phonetics, Phonology), word and sentence structure (Morphology, Syntax), meaning (Semantics, Pragmatics), social uses of language (Sociolinguistics), and language technologies (Computational Linguistics). In each area, students will gain skills in communicating their understanding of language data and linguistic theories, in written and oral form. Students will also have opportunities to be actively involved in research, putting into practice the knowledge and skills gained in linguistics courses in research projects of their design, or in projects led by faculty members.


First-Year Seminars

Our department offers first-year seminars that cover various topics in linguistics.

Introductory courses

The Linguistics Department offers a selection of courses at the 200-level that introduce students to the fundamental properties of language and their scientific investigation.

  • LING 220 Language in Society
  • LING 223 Language and Gender
  • LING 250 Sound Patterns in Human Language (Phonetics and Phonology)
  • LING 260 Formal Analysis of Words and Sentence (Morphology and Syntax)
  • LING 270 Meaning (Semantics and Pragmatics)


Please see the Northwestern online catalog for a complete listing of the current undergraduate courses in Linguistics, along with course descriptions and information about prerequisites.


The Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS) for the Department of Linguistics is available to talk with students who are majoring or minoring in linguistics, as well as those just thinking about it. Students can discuss with the Director of Undergraduate Studies:

  • requirements for the linguistics major and/or minor
  • course selections
  • career choice
  • planning your undergraduate career in linguistics
  • research in the department
  • graduate school options

Make an appointment with the Director of Undergraduate Studies. Or feel free to stop by the main office of the Linguistics Department at 2016 Sheridan Road.

 For more information about Linguistics Advising please visit this webpage.

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