Linguistics as a Profession

What can I do with a degree in linguistics?  

Professional linguists work in a number of fields and engage in a range of successful and fulfilling careers. Individuals with degrees in linguistics tend to specialize in particular areas within the field and build their careers around those areas. Below are the primary areas of specialization followed by some common careers within linguistics.


  • ​Psycholinguists

Biology, neuroscience, cognitive science, and psychology as a whole, come together in psycholinguistics. Specialists in this field research how the brain processes language, from how children learn languages to how mental illness can affect language. Generally, psycholinguists work in a lab with an affiliation to either a university or research foundation and they may also teach linguistics to university students. Some areas of interest to psycholinguists are: word/sentence parsing, bilingual/translation cognition, language acquisition/learning, and language disorders.
  • Sociolinguists 

Society is studied through a variety of lenses, such as economics, religion, and geography. A sociolinguist researches the connections between language and society/culture. Often, a sociolinguist works as part of a university department or research department and may also teach, however, they can also be found in the field working on language preservation, recording language change, or consulting on policy. Some areas of interest to sociolinguists: are race/ethnicity, sex/gender, and language change over time/space, motivation for language alteration, and humor.
  • Historical linguists

While sociolinguists investigate the present or recent changes in languages, historical linguists research language change throughout history. Historical linguists also theorize on the first or “proto” languages that developed into the language families that exist today. A historical linguist’s job almost always involves some form of language documentation that can take place either in the field or at a research institution like a university.
  • Computational linguistics

Those who specialize in computational approaches to linguistic problems may work in the computer industry on issues of speech recognition, speech synthesis, artificial intelligence, natural language processing, or computer-mediated language learning. These linguists provide vital skills and expertise in the technology sector.



Higher Ed and K-12 Education 

With their training in the mechanics of languages, linguists have a strong advantage in the field of language education.  Linguists involved in education are not restricted to teaching; they also develop educational materials, train language teachers, develop standardized testing materials, and find means to assess acquisition and more effectively teach language. 

  • Professor of Linguistics, Foreign Languages, or English

    Academia is a common path for linguists. Academic linguists devote themselves to a life of science, and after much training often become university professors. They share their love of linguistics with like-minded graduate and undergraduate students and conduct research that is essential to the field, sharing their results with the scientific community through publications, lectures, and conferences.

  • Foreign language or English teacher, K-12

    Language educators may teach their native or a foreign language at any level. A degree in linguistics is a good background for those pursuing English as a Second Language (ESL) or Teaching English as a Second or Other Language (TESOL) credentials.

  • Academic Editor

    Understanding the structure and nuance of language allows you to have a keen eye when reviewing other’s writing. This detail-oriented work involves assessing and correcting manuscripts.
  • Lexicographer

Lexicographers are interested in the meaning of words and how they change over time. As a lexicographer, you would help write and edit dictionaries for online and print publication.

Translation and Interpreting

With additional training, translation and interpretation are other potential careers for linguists. Interpreters provide on-the-spot services to facilitate communication between two individuals who do not speak a common language. Translators use their language skills to render documents from one language into another. The majority of translators are self-employed. You may work as a freelancer or for translation companies or for institutions such as the ones below.
  • Public sector translator

    Interpreters are often needed in public hospitals, schools, and courts.  
  • Business translator  

Commercial and industrial companies sometimes require translation services for business documents including contracts and business proposals.
  • Government translator

Various government departments recruit translators and linguists. There may also be some opportunities to work for international governments, institutions and organizations such as the United Nations.

Science and Technology

Those who specialize in computational approaches to linguistic problems may work in the computer industry on issues of speech recognition, speech synthesis, artificial intelligence, natural language processing, or computer-mediated language learning. These linguists provide vital skills and expertise in the technology sector.
  • Artificial Intelligence development

Tech companies utilizing AI in customer service, search engines, and product development employ linguists for the development and maintenance of their automated systems. Their knowledge of the complexities of language often leads to a more effective program and better understanding of their clients’ needs.
  • Speech Pathologist

Speech-Language Pathologists use their expertise to prevent, diagnose, and treat various language and communication disorders such as aphasia, apraxia, and dysarthria.
  • Computer language coding

As technology develops and computers become more complex, those with computational skills are in demand, new and more complex code languages are needed and those with computational linguistic degrees often answer the call.
  • Machine translation

Increased globalization has brought those from different linguistic backgrounds closer, in order to help communicate, we turn to technology and the linguists who help develop those systems.
  • ​Text-to-speech developers

Companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google are constantly improving in their speech recognition systems. Analytical linguists use their knowledge of phonetics and phonology of various accents and dialects of the languages their users to improve the experience of the user interface.

Law and Government 

Some linguists use their abilities and training to work in government, intelligence and law enforcement. Linguists’ analytical skills are in high demand to conduct research, provide language-related technological services, and contribute important insight on issues of law and governance.
  • Communications intelligence and Cryptanalysis

    In order to protect national security, American Intelligence agencies hire linguists to help protect and decode sensitive information. Linguists with these specialties can help decode, translate, analyze, and summarize these sensitive messages, while also developing code systems to protect American information from others.  

  • Diplomats

The US State Department represents our country throughout the world, requiring diplomats to have language skills to conduct diplomacy. Those with linguistic degrees serve as a backbone to teaching diplomats and conducting language services to help the communication process between the US and foreign governments. 
  • Law enforcement forensic linguistics

Law enforcement like the FBI, are utilizing new practices of investigation through forensic linguistics to help legal cases. It is not uncommon for a forensic linguist to operate as an amicus curiae or ‘friend of the court’ who will offer expert opinion on the linguistic components of a case. This can include will interpretation, voice print analysis, linguistic discrimination, to name a few areas.
  • Lawyer-linguist/jurilinguist

Unlike a court translator whose task is purely translation, a jurilinguist will advise a client including help with legal language,
often in a bilingual and international court setting.

Marketing and Advertising

  • Foreign language advertising support

International corporations often want to advertise their products to customers in a variety cultures that speak various languages. For this, they will hire not only translators, but linguists and anthropologists to better understand the language as it is used in by the culture they are adverting to. Those with expertise in sociolinguistics or anthropological linguistics help corporations to better understand the cultural and linguistic complexities of their customers and develop effective, appropriate advertising
  • Multicultural marketing

Akin to foreign language advertising, multicultural marketing works on a larger scale, either in a nation as a whole or internationally. Multicultural marketers work on understanding the cultural and societal values that their customers hold, determining which ones they can best cater towards, both linguistically and visually.

Linguistic Advocacy

There are also a number of important causes that are shouldered by activism-minded linguists. Linguists work to document, analyze, and preserve endangered languages by conducting fieldwork and establishing literacy programs. This type of work can be highly rewarding for linguists collaborating with language communities around the world to help revitalize their languages.
  • Language documentation

Cultures that have not had writing histories and have been minorities in their own regions of the world are slowly dying out. Linguists are rushing to document these endangered languages before they go extinct because of the inherent cultural value that a language has and what it can teach us about languages as a whole. Linguists often place their documentation in online databases like a museum to preserve languages that may become extinct in the near future. There are times when these languages have revealed new information for linguists and sometimes unknown languages are revealed. 
  • Language revitalization

Often expanding on documentation work, language revivalists work with endangered language communities to prevent the extinction of their language. One technique is to use documentation databases as a resource for learners. They often also employ their knowledge of applied and psycholinguistics to optimize the language learning environment. With this greater facility, a community is more empowered to preserve their endangered language.  

  • Language Rights Advocate

In 1976 at the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a UN General Assembly resolution was made effective. A key element, Article 27, protected the use of a community’s language among other rights. However, communities of minority languages are still suppressed to this day national governments around the world. Language Rights Advocates work with organizations like OHCHR to stop this breach of the rights of minorities.

Want more?  Select the topic "Careers" in our Resource Center for webinars, handouts and more.  Also check out the Linguistics Beyond Academia special interest group web page. This group holds occasional virtual events that can provide insight to the development of the lives of linguists in both private and public industries.