Linguists get asked that question a lot. Sometimes by family members or potential in-laws. Sometimes by casual acquaintances or seatmates on a plane (for those who still fly). Sometimes from students or their families. Sometimes even from friends, colleagues, or university administrators.
It turns out that linguists do quite a lot and quite a lot of different things. Many academic linguists do research on sound structure, grammar and meaning, language acquisition, language use or the history and structure of a particular language. Some linguists teach linguistics, or foreign languages or English as a second language (ESL). Careers in ESL or TESOL (as it is also known) can be as close as your own community or can take you around the globe.
Beyond teaching, linguists are involved in a wide variety of careers in which a knowledge of how language works is important. Expertise in linguistics is often combined with knowledge of engineering or computer science: linguists work on metadata and programming for language and data mining, on speech recognition and speech synthesis, and artificial intelligence. If you are able to ask your phone or computer a question, linguists were involved somewhere.
Speech pathology is another career in which you’ll find linguists, especially ones with some expertise in anatomy and physiology or neuroscience. Working with clients struggling with speech disorders can be intellectually and emotionally fulfilling, and it entails prevention, assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide range of issues—from speech production to aphasic disorders to problems related to cognition and language development.
Linguists also work in the performing arts, as dialect coaches for films and videos or as voice or accent choices for public speakers. If you remember a film that had particularly authentic regional or period speech, it is a safe bet that a linguist coached the actors. Some linguists even develop artificial or constructed languages –conlangs—for games, films or fantasy worlds: Klingon, Dothraki, High Valyrian, take your pick.
Linguists may serve the public interest, by helping to document, preserve, or revitalize endangered dialects and endangered languages or by training teachers and developing curriculum materials. They may work in government service analyzing codes, documents, texts, or tapes for national security. Some linguists work on matters of public and consumer safety, helping to make messages clearer, fairer, and more inclusive.
Forensic linguists specialize in matters of law: from criminal investigations that involve author identification or voice identification to the analysis of trademarks, threats, and hate speech. They may also contribute to making the legal process fairer by analyzing the way language works in the courtroom and how juries, witnesses, and judges understand and use language. Linguists testify in court and before Congress on matters of language and have been cited in Supreme Court cases.
Linguists with some expertise in writing may work as technical writers or editors, putting their knowledge to work clarifying the writing of others, preparing materials for publication, or developing technical standards for business and professional documents. Marketing and advertising are also fields where linguists contribute, often by research on comprehensibility or on product names, but also as cross-cultural experts working on multicultural marketing.
And of course linguists work as translators and lexicographers. They may also work with museums, developing exhibits and material on history, dialects, speech, or particular language families. From the National Museum of Language in Maryland to your local science or history museum, linguists help to design exhibits that educate people about the way they speak and the ways that language works.
Doing linguistics means breaking professional knowledge down, showing how it relates to everyday life, and showing why it is fascinating. Linguists do this in the classroom, through books and articles, podcasts and videos. Some linguists even write blogs about language and linguistics. A few of my favorites are All Things Linguistic, the Language Log, Superlinguo, Separated by a Common Language, and Grammar Girl. Check them out to discover more things that linguists do.
Featured Image Credit: Work Flow by Christin Hume via Unsplash