Exciting New Opportunities for Linguistics Grads

After years of low demand and dwindling pay, linguistics graduates are being recruited by high-tech companies eager for employees with an understanding of the complexities of natural language.

"One of the major challenges of computer scientists has always been getting machines to deal with human natural languages in a useful way," says Stephen Anderson. He is the chair of linguistics and cognitive science at Yale University.

Anderson says that understanding how speech works is one of the really hard problems of science.

"And since linguists actually do have some grasp of the basic nature of the knowledge we deploy as human language users, knowledge that would be incredibly useful if computational systems could be similarly equipped, we have suddenly become very much in demand," says Anderson.

John Ohala is a professor of linguistics at the University of California. "In my experience, there has been a virtual boom in jobs for linguists at virtually all levels: BA, MA, PhD, as well as for established faculty," he says.

"Even though about half of my PhD students went into industry over the past 30 years, industry now comes knocking on my door looking for technically qualified people who know about the structure of language and speech."

Ohala explains that the demand comes mostly from "voice portal" companies. These offer clients access to information on the Internet using only a telephone.

According to Ohala, linguists with some background in programming, natural language processing, acoustic analysis of speech, digital signal processing, or those with experience managing large works of written or spoken language get the best jobs. Yet even linguists without those skills are finding good jobs, he says.

"Jobs range from something approaching pure research positions to positions developing organized lexicons for foreign languages to jobs making sure that new names for products don't have unfortunate meanings [or connotations] in foreign languages," says Anderson.

Eduard Hovy currently heads the natural language group at the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute. He divides tech jobs that linguists are now holding into three major groups:

  • A job (in a start-up, say) analyzing the start-up's problems and designing the basic stages of processing
  • A job as a lexicographer collecting and categorizing words and adding the appropriate features to make them useful to the computer system
  • A job as a problem spotter, searching for good niches into which to fit some technology

Professors are watching their students come in, learn and go out with terrific jobs, no matter what form of linguistics they choose to specialize in.

Hovy says that the linguistic student makes himself or herself much more marketable by "being able to program, even a little."

"This way, he or she can work with programmers in a much more useful way. Even one year's worth of programming courses -- an intro course, a data structures course, an algorithms course and a more advanced programming course -- is excellent preparation for a career in NLP [natural language processes]," he says.

Anderson says that these changes have had several different effects on the field. "Job opportunities for linguists are no longer, as they have sometimes been, limited to purely academic positions teaching new generations of students to be academic linguists," he says.

"Promising students go off to work in industry. The best student I've had in years took a job in Silicon Valley last year, partly because jobs for syntacticians were really scarce, but also because it was really a better job than most beginning academic positions offer."

It may take years before we see where the future of linguistics will eventually lie. But for now, linguists can enjoy new and exciting career choices in the field of technology.

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