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Are you lucky enough to know a linguistics major?

Few undergraduates enter MIT planning to study linguistics even though MIT’s department, home to Noam Chomsky, is well-regarded in the field — the graduate program, in particular, is internationally famous. Despite the prestige, Course XXIV only has around 6–10 undergraduates at any given time. Last fall, the department had 7 undergraduates majoring in the field (one a double major), compared to 66 students in its graduate program.

Those undergrads who do find their way to linguistics say they’ve always had a dormant interest the field, but discovered that their passion bloomed once they arrived at MIT. They come from diverse backgrounds — computer science, brain and cognitive sciences — but all share a love for the puzzle that is language.

The transformation

Some linguistics majors cultivated their interest on their own while in high school, since linguistics is largely absent from high school curricula. The department has made efforts to connect with admitted students expressing an interest in the field, letting them know that they will find support for their interests at MIT, said linguistics professor David Pesetsky.

Several admitted members of the Class of 2014 were top winners in the Linguistics Olympiad, a program started by the Soviet Union in the 1960s to generate linguistics interest that has since become an international competition.

Most majors did not come to MIT with linguistics in mind, but found themselves enjoying the popular introductory class, 24.900. After they finish the class, they start thinking about embarking on a major.

Jennifer Melot ’12 (double majoring with Course VI) first discovered linguistics when she read Stephen Pinker’s The Language Instinct, an opportunity she gained while working on a research project with professors. Although she entered college with plans of studying mathematics, she discovered that she enjoyed her linguistics and computer science classes at MIT more than her math classes.

Antony Nguyen ’12 became interested through his four years of Latin studies in high school. “It irked me that Latin was taught as a translated, but not spoken language,” he said.

“I would hear other students speaking in their foreign languages to other people, but I could never do that with Latin. Learning Latin made me especially curious about studying its pronunciation and phonology, and consequently, studying pronunciation and phonology of other languages.”

Nguyen read about languages and phonology in his spare time in high school, but did not seriously consider studying linguistics while working on his college applications. Taking 24.900 deepened his interest, and with the recommendations of his adviser, he began his major in linguistics.

Most linguistics majors also pursue studies in other fields, typically computer science, math, and brain and cognitive sciences, Pesetsky said.

“The approaches in problem solving that apply to these majors also seem to be important in the study of how language works,” he said.

In particular, recent findings in linguistics have been closely related to brain functions and languages centers have been located in the brain, making Course IX a popular double major choice. Furthermore, linguistics research has lately involved the use of magnetic resonance imaging to monitor the movement of tissues during speech, said Rafael Raya ’11, a double major in linguistics and Course IX (Brain and Cognitive Sciences).

Wug kind of future for a linguistics major?

A common misconception is that linguistics majors have few opportunities in the job market. Yet this is not at all the case — Nguyen once came across an MSN news article that listed computational linguists as one of top five future jobs, and Pesetsky said that law schools are “very happy” admitting linguistics students.

Melot is considering pursuing computational linguistics as part of her graduate studies, and Nguyen, although not specifically planning on pursuing the field, has an interest in it. In particular, they are looking into natural language processing, a study which involves using computers to understand human input. This field has become increasingly useful, according to Nguyen, as it allows communication with machines through speaking, which is much more efficient than communication through typing and writing.

Nguyen is also thinking of studying further linguistic theory and is interested in research, especially in language syntax, and hopes to pursue a linguistics Ph.D in the near future.

Raya, originally hoping to pursue medical school, has instead decided to enter education leadership. “I feel my study of linguistics will help my approach my work as a potential superintendent or principal more effectively,” he said.

At MIT, the future of the department seems bright. “I have seen many students doing a HASS concentration in linguistics, and it is common for students to enter a graduate linguistics program without a formal degree in the field,” says Pesetsky.

“Studying linguistics provides you with highly useful skills that allow you to be successful in almost any field.”