Cognition & Language


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* = Minors are not technically a degree, but can be pursued to supplement a bachelor's degree

Language capability is unique to humans and the study of language is the study of a shared human heritage. Linguistics is the scientific study of human language—its structure and diversity, how its learned and understood, and how social practices shape and are shaped by it.

At CU Boulder, the Department of Linguistics is a major center of interdisciplinary research in linguistic cognition, computational linguistics, language documentation and  sociocultural linguistics. It offers a range of research programs targeting properties of language as it is used in daily life.  Many of its research efforts have critical applications, like the building of computer systems that process natural language and the revitalization and preservation of endangered languages. 

My background in linguistics helps me everyday while crafting content and marketing strategies to engage various audiences. Linguistics has given me a solid background in understanding people, their perceptions and how language shapes everything."

— David Arcara (BA ’84), co-founder, Laconia Capital Group LP venture capital firm

Every time we utter a word, no matter how mundane, we engage in a remarkable and, to the best of our knowledge, uniquely human behavior.

Currently, there are over 7,000 languages in the world. Most of them have never been properly described and many of them will disappear from the earth in the next fifty years. Linguistics is the study of all aspects of human language, and one of its goals is to describe langauges and try to help them survive, if their speakers wish.

Linguists study language as a complex cultural adaptation, whose structural properties reflect the values, concepts and neural and cognitive machinery of language users. Language allows us to communicate our thoughts, get our daily needs met and signal aspects of personal identity. People have an immense amount of unconscious knowledge about language; this makes it possible to put thoughts into words and to understand what other people are saying to us, and to do it so rapidly that we rarely pay any attention to these remarkable processes—until we encounter other languages, young children just learning to talk or people with language disorders. 

Linguistics tries to figure out what it is that we know and do when we are skilled language users. Linguists observe and describe the structure of languages (their grammar), the way children learn language, slips of the tongue and language disorders.

Linguists study the social nature of language by observing and describing face-to-face and telephone conversations, storytelling, doctor-patient interviews and other ways that language is used for cultural interaction. They also study the acoustics of sound waves and the way people’s brains react when they read or when they hear speech, and use this knowledge about how people process speech to help build better computer programs for automatic speech recognition. They create alphabets and dictionaries for languages that have never been written down before, and figure out the unconscious grammar that their speakers are using so that textbooks can be created. Linguists reconstruct prehistoric languages that have been dead for many hundreds of years, and try to deduce the principles behind their evolution into the thousands of languages of the world today. Languages whose grammars are studied by faculty members and current or recent students in the linguistics department include: Arabic, Basque, Bahasa Malaysia, Cantonese, English, Japanese, Mandarin, Polish, Spanish, Vietnamese, Yiddish; Native American languages: Gros Ventre, Lakhota, Blackfoot, Arapaho, Wichita; and African languages: Awutu, East Dangla, Gidar, Hona, Lele, Wandala, Mina, Mupun, Pero, Hdi, Giziga, Makari, Sakun.

And the Department of Linguistics is home to a number of excellent and award-winning faculty, including a College of Arts and Sciences' Professor of Distinction, a recipient of the Boulder Faculty Assembly’s Excellence in Teaching award, a recipient of the Humboldt Research Prize, and fellows of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Center for Linguistic Typology and the Association for Computational Linguistics.

The Department of Linguistics encourages research in several traditions and themes, including Language Documentation; Psycholinguistics and Experimental Linguistics; Computational Linguistics; Functional Syntax; and Sociocultural Linguistics.

Their diverse faculty also include several who have joint affiliations with institutes and centers like the Institute of Cognitive Science, and other departments like French and Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, Anthropology, Media Studies, Women & Gender Studies, Computer Science and Philosophy.

For the undergraduate students pursuing a degree in linguistics, there are a number of research opportunities beyond just class work:

  • Linguistics encourages all seniors to partake in research of some kind with a faculty member. One way they can do that is through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), which offers students a chance to work alongside a faculty sponsor on original research. Learn to write proposals, conduct research, pursue creative work, analyze data, and present the results. For more information, call UROP at 303-492-2596 or visit the UROP website.

  • Majors may choose to seek honors in linguistics, which results in the designation of cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude at graduation. Honors work usually involves special coursework and a senior honors thesis. Check into this program early with the linguistics department's advisor.

  • The linguistics department also recommends participating in one of the many study abroad programs offered by CU and other universities. Interested students should first consult the linguistics primary advisor. Programs last from a few weeks to a full academic year, and offer opportunities to take language courses as well as linguistics courses. Since prior language study is a prerequisite for many programs, early planning for study abroad is essential. Further information about study abroad is available from Education Abroad, 303-492-7741 or on the education abroad website.

Linguistics is an especially useful background for a number of jobs, including foreign service, international business, translation (including Bible translation) or interpretation, teaching English as a second language in the U.S. or abroad, bilingual education and advertising and publishing. As well, linguistics training is directly helpful in editing textbooks and documenting software. 

Students who augment their linguistics degree with some computer science classes often find jobs in companies or labs that specialize in computer speech recognition or speech synthesis, or that build natural language interfaces for databases so that users can communicate with their computers more easily.

Linguistics students are also well-equipped for further training in many fields, including computer science, psychology, journalism, communication, sociology, anthropology, international affairs, foreign languages, philosophy, law, and education. And of course, linguistics majors often go on to do graduate work in linguistics and closely related areas such as psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, cognitive science, communication disorders and anthropological linguistics.

Career Services offers free services for all CU Boulder degree-seeking students, and alumni up to one year after graduation, to help students discover who they are, what they want to do, and how to get there. They are the bridge between academics and the world of work by discussing major and career exploration, internship or job searching, and graduate school preparation. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • The median salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree in Linguistics in 2016 was $46,120 per year.
  • Job growth for those in the linguistics field is projected to be 19 percent from 2016-2026, “much faster” than the average for all jobs, according to the bureau.

Estimated Linguistics Salary Info

At CU Boulder, Linguistics graduates earn more than the nationwide average of comparable majors as reported by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. CU Boulder alumni in this discipline earn an estimated annual salary of $73,178 based on a pool of 150 alumni who graduated between 1989 and 2018. This amount, however, is lower than the average for all CU Boulder graduates with a bachelor's degree, according to a survey by Esmi Alumni Insight of 25,000 alumni who graduated during that same stretch.

The linguistics department has an extensive list of alumni that are either working or have worked in a variety of industries across the globe. Some alumni of the program include:

  • Susan W. Brown (PhD, '10) is a lecturer and research associate in Natural language processing, computational semantics, lexical resources and ontologies at CU Boulder.
  • Georgia Zellou (PhD, '12) is an assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Davis. 
  • Will Styler (BA/MA, '08), is is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, San Diego, specializing in computational and quantitative approaches to language.
  • Jennifer Campbell (MA, '13) is a lecturer in Linguistics and the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at CU Boulder.
  • Sarah Hoffman (BA in Linguistics & Spanish, '03) is Director of Academic and Persistence Initiatives at the University of Denver.