Don't worry, study linguistics

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Emily Finn, "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Linguistics", in the most recent NYT Education News:

My college admissions essay said it all — if only I had stopped and listened to myself at the time. I was more concerned with finding a hook that would set me apart from the tens of thousands of other applicants, who were, of course, trying to do the same thing.

At my affluent public high school, potential pre-meds and Wall Streeters (yes, at age 17) lined the hallways. Foreign languages were a more unlikely passion. So I seized on that, choosing to narrate my journey from middle-school Francophilia to full-blown foreign grammar nerd.

Looking through the brochures accumulated on endless campus visits, I didn’t find many schools that offered bachelor’s degrees to people who studied a random assortment of languages, and wanderlust made me reluctant to choose one. But most offered a major in something called linguistics. Maybe by professing my appetite for such a charmingly obscure course of study, I could win over the admissions officers.

It got her into Yale (though I suspect there were a few other factors). Anyhow, in the end, this self-presentation strategem worked out for her in other ways. She surprised herself by actually majoring in linguistics, and was seduced by her senior thesis:

“You know,” my friend David said, “this research is just about the only thing I’ve ever heard you talk about with any sort of enthusiasm or passion . . . except for, like, partying or the Giants or something. Why don’t you go get a Ph.D.?”

“I — but — ” I stuttered. Graduate school? Me? I’ve never been particularly academic. My parents weren’t academics. As a staunch commitment-phobe, I thought devoting one’s whole life to the study of some minute cluster of phenomena was utterly unfathomable. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized David had a point. There was nothing in college I cared about so deeply as this. I felt indignant; research had sneaked up on me. Who would have thought that I would discover, in February of senior year, that what I was majoring in was actually what I was interested in? I think Professor Piñango saw it coming before I did. The following Monday, I was anxious to share what I had termed my quarter-life crisis. I burst dramatically into her office.

“You know what I realized? I really like this stuff!” I exclaimed. “I can work on it for hours on end and it never feels like a chore.” She was unfazed. “Yeah? So? Go to grad school.”

I think I will.

My own reasons for majoring in linguistics were even more accidental. I entered college with sophomore standing, and so I had to declare a major right away. I wanted to major in math, but this required an interview with the department chair, Prof. Gleason, who was distinctly not encouraging.

"Tell me, young man," he said, peering at me coldly over the top of his glasses, "what new theorems have you proved?"

"Well", I said, taken aback, "just the ones I was assigned for homework, or on tests. But those weren't new, I guess…"

"Exactly," he said. "As a rule, we find that mathematical talent shows itself early. So if you haven't made an original contribution by the time you enter college, the chances are that you won't ever do so. I tell you this for your own good."

I felt somewhat disappointed, since no one had told me before that perfect scores on the SAT mathematics and AP calculus exams were an inadequate qualification for undergraduate study in mathematics. But I could take a hint, and so I decided to seek my fortune elsewhere.

My next idea was "applied mathematics", which was a separate department. But as I recall, you couldn't major in plain "applied mathematics", it had to be "X and applied mathematics", for some value of X. Looking at the alternatives, I stumbled on a magnificent loophole in the general education requirements — the authorities were apparently unsure where linguistics belonged in the Great Chain of Academic Being, and so any linguistics course could be counted against the requirements in natural science, social science, or humanities, at the student's discretion. Even though I fully intended to take courses in all of those areas, the opportunity to do so without compulsion was irrationally irresistible. So I signed up as a major in "linguistics and applied math".

After some twists and turns, this worked out as well for me as it seems to be doing for Ms. Finn. Her description is a pretty good recommendation, don't you think? "I can work on it for hours on end and it never feels like a chore."

I've heard from others that Andrew Gleason's advice to me was his standard speech in those days to would-be math majors. Years later, I found myself on the same conference program with him (it was an event in honor of Nicholas Metropolis), and I teased him a bit about this advice. He explained that he regarded undergraduate majors as an unwelcome distraction, for the most part, and also felt that encouraging less talented students to pursue the subject did them no favor, given the poor job market for professional mathematicians. If I'd come in as a freshman, I probably would have learned enough in my first year to ignore his advice, if I really wanted to. Anyhow, no regrets.

For college-bound high school students, that long-closed general-education loophole still has a useful moral. As a "linguist", you can work in areas that span the disciplinary spectrum: mathematics, natural science, social science, humanities, medicine, public policy, engineering, … So if you like the idea of not having to specialize too narrowly, or you're having a hard time making up your mind, give us a look. (Of course, a positive interest in some aspects of speech, language and communication is also a plus — but most people qualify on that dimension.)


  1. Ray Girvan said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

    "So if you haven't made an original contribution by the time you enter college, the chances are that you won't ever do so."

    I felt somewhat disappointed … But I could take a hint, and so I decided to seek my fortune elsewhere.

    The trouble is (and especially when one is young) it's difficult to know if such statements thrown at you in interview are factual, or conversational gambits to see how you respond to challenge.

    [(myl) Indeed. In this particular case, I believe that it was a conversational gambit intended to keep down the number of math majors — but that hypothesis didn't occur to me either, at the time.]

  2. Paul said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

    These things vary: I was told (by the course director) that it wasn't worth applying for a particular masters degree in computer speech and language processing on the grounds that my first degree was mostly in linguistics.

    [(myl) For a post-graduate program, there are generally fairly specific requirements (in this case probably math and CS). In the U.S., it's usually possible to make these up via summer school or part-time study, if you're really determined to do so. Of course this won't guarantee that you'll get in to a particular program, just that you won't be turned down for lack of required background. In Europe, I have the impression that students who don't stay on a standard track are more unusual, are viewed with more suspicion, and are less likely to succeed.]

  3. peter said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    "Tell me, young man," he said, peering at me coldly over the top of his glasses, "what new theorems have you proved?"

    A few years ago, I heard an official of the NSF say that an estimated 250,000 new theorems were published each year. Not having contributed to this plenitude is perhaps to be admired.

  4. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

    Both my parents have M.A.'s in linguistics, so I think I knew the difference between a fricative and a stop probably before I finished elementary school, but it took me a high school education focused on math and science, a B.A. in philosophy, and a year of teaching high school before I actually decided to devote my life to linguistics. Definitely no regrets.

  5. Joe said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

    I finished a B.A. in Classics and German and then taught EFL for a few years before I realized linguistics was what I should have been devoting myself to this whole time. Now I am pursuing a second Bachelor's in general linguistics with the intention of eventually getting a PhD. I study in Germany, and I definitely agree that "in Europe students who don't stay on a standard track are more unusual" and "are viewed with more suspicion." I hope that I am not less likely to succeed, though, even if I often fear that I am getting off to a late start. Nonetheless, I have absolutely no regrets.

  6. Marion Bridge said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    Alas, I didn't major in linguistics. A second D in Survey of English Lit Part II forced a change from English to something else and although linguistics was the only thing I enjoyed, I worried a BA in Linguistics wouldn't get me far. However, a BEd in ESL meant I could take as many linguistics courses as my schedule allowed. I am no longer teaching but still, no regrets. Although sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I tried for chemistry…

  7. Jair said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

    Why would you worry about your capacity to publish original research as an undergraduate? Whatever happened to studying something because… you enjoy it? Personally, I have no idea what the future holds for me. I finished my BS in math and I hope to pursue grad school, but I'm not sure if I have the chops to become a professional mathematician. I've discovered a few ideas on my own – albeit, most of which had actually been figured out a few hundred years earlier. But I still want to pursue grad school because I like math and the whole educational experience of lectures and homework and study groups. Will it buy me a stable career? I don't know. But I seriously doubt I will look back on it and call it a waste of time.

    Personally, I think it must be some kind of sin to discourage people from studying math. There's enough people terrified of the subject without professors raising their eyebrows at every student who isn't a Ramanujan. Students can quickly find for themselves where their limits are. My rule of thumb for pursuing any subject is: Keep taking classes until you hate it. Then stop. If that never happens, you've got yourself a major.

  8. Tom said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 7:05 pm

    I'm a math professor and a Harvard graduate.

    In my year the person teaching Harvard's extremely rapid and abstract advanced calculus course for first-year students was doing his best to discourage everybody from taking the course. His theory was probably that the select few for whom this was in fact a good fit would ignore his advice. In fact, I don't think there was a very high correlation between who took his advice and who should have, although people sorted themselves out to some extent later.

    I don't think anyone should be discouraged from studying math as an undergrad; if you like it, then it's going to be some kind of good brain exercise, even if it's not going to be your life's work.

    Discouraging people from pursuing PhD programs if there is serious doubt about their level of talent makes more sense. But I would not explore the matter by asking whether they have proved a theorem; I would explore it by engaging them in a conversation about mathematics.

  9. D.O. said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 7:38 pm

    Things are getting clearer now. I was highly puzzled by one of previos posts by Prof. Liberman where he mentioned that he took a class which included "several axiomatizations of Lesbegues measure" (paraphrasing from memory). "How that's possible for someone interested in language?", thought I…

  10. D.O. said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 7:43 pm

    From what I've heard about mathematics, proving theorems is more or less technical matter (Fermat's last is a huge exception). True art is coming up with interesting theorems.

  11. Graeme Hirst said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

    @Paul: These things vary: I was told (by the course director) that it wasn't worth applying for a particular masters degree in computer speech and language processing on the grounds that my first degree was mostly in linguistics.

    As myl says, you need more than that. I occasionally have to tell linguistics majors that they aren't good candidates for our computational linguistics courses because they dropped math in high school and they have no knowledge of programming. I open a copy of Manning and Schütze at a random page and ask if they can read the math; sometimes they don't even know what the big symbol that looks like a springy E is.

    People like Steven Bird and his NLTK colleagues work hard to bring computing to linguists. But many linguists are not equipped to receive it.

  12. Adrian Morgan said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 8:19 pm

    Re: any linguistics course could be counted against the requirements in natural science, social science, or humanities, at the student's discretion

    This makes me curious about the structure of this particular university's requirements. For comparison, at the university I attended, to complete a BSc with a major in computing, I had to complete a certain quota of science subjects, a certain quota of computing subjects, and a certain quota of subjects in total, the remainder of which could be anything offered by the university.

    The non-core subjects counted towards my degree, the total number of subjects completed being just as much a requirement as the smaller quota of science or computing subjects at the core. Moreover, had I chosen to complete a few more subjects, I could have obtained a combined BSc/BA, counting core subjects in my BSc as non-core subjects in my BA, and vice versa, simultaneously.

    Did your university have a similar policy, or was it significantly different?

    I was planning to finish by summarising the two linguistics subjects I completed at university, but this is already getting a bit long.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 9:24 pm

    It's a nice story, and also makes one feel happy (or at least it makes me feel happy) to be reminded that the Yale linguistics program survived its brush with near-death in the early 1990's and came out the other side. But I'm a bit surprised not to see studying tax law as a perfect follow-on to a linguistics major being carried over from the earlier thread. Miss Finn is not one of the younger Yale undergraduates I have had the occasional opportunity to favor with my autobiographically-derived E-Z two-step career plan for how to make an economically comfortable adult living with a B.A. in Linguistics (Step One: get sufficiently varied and shaky grades in your linguistics classes that no one including yourself will view you as a particularly strong candidate for admission to a good Ph.D. program; but, Step Two: don't forget to do well on the LSATs.) But it sounds as if she's already failed to follow Step One. As for the enthusiastic young man from Claremont who commented in the other thread that he was contemplated seeking both a law degree and a linguistics Ph.D. . . . the mind boggles.

    From a distributional requirements perspective, classes taught in the Linguistics Department proper had been stuck rather arbitrarily into the social sciences in my school's quadripartite scheme in my day, but you could take certain classes from other departments for credit toward the linguistics major which probably could range over all three of the other groups (I took an AI class in the Computer Science department which may have qualified for linguistics major credit although my memory is fuzzy on that, and then philosophy-of-language and advanced language classes covered the other two groups: the language-related anthropology classes I took were in the "home" social science group.)

  14. Juliet said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 12:04 am

    Interesting article that touches me particularly because my story is somewhat similar to Emily Finn's- I finished high school knowing only that I really enjoyed studying foreign languages and did not want to have to settle on just one at university. This lead me toward the study of linguistics, but my university did not (and still does not) offer a degree in linguistics. So, while I didn't go to Yale and do not have a BA in Linguistics, I, too, am about to begin graduate school- in Applied Linguistic Anthropology.

  15. Benjamin Lukoff said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 12:24 am

    I didn't major in linguistics as an undergraduate for the somewhat silly reason that I didn't want to take a year of a non-Indo-European language. That year was all that was standing between my linguistics minor and a linguistics major. However, I don't think it was as silly as it sounds. My major was English, which at the University of Washington required (and still requires) no classes in English language — so I set out to take as many of the courses as they did offer as possible, taking enough linguistics classes as electives to basically cobble together my own major. Meanwhile, I was taking four years of Russian on the side, for a second minor in that language. The other electives were in music, art, economics, stat — basically, I was trying to do too much in too short a period, and thought there was no way I could fit in a year of, say, Finnish — my Russian would suffer and my GPA would be dragged down.

    For graduate school, I happened upon University College London, where they did offer a formal specialty in English linguistics.

    Had I to do it all over again, I might very well have simply majored in Linguistics, and taken something like Hebrew as my foreign language instead of Russian, but there's no going back to 1994.

    As for my initial interest, I could hardly avoid it, with my father being Fred Lukoff, though there was no particular encouragement on his part for me to study linguistics. (In fact, speaking of the linguistics-law connection, I think he thought I might be more suited for the latter!) But, as I say — hard to avoid given the library I grew up with. Though, unlike Ryan, I don't think I knew what a fricative was in elementary school, I'm probably one of the youngest people to have attempted reading "On accent and juncture in English"!

  16. Chris Lance said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 4:00 am

    A few years ago, I heard an official of the NSF say that an estimated 250,000 new theorems were published each year.
    That sounds like a substantial overestimate to me. Math Reviews lists around 40,000 articles a year, and I doubt whether most of them contain more than one or two results that deserve to be called a theorem. Surely the average cannot be as high as six theorems per paper.

  17. Achim said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 5:04 am

    When I left school, I had no idea what to do in working life. I had quite a few ideas about what to avoid, among them fields of study I speak less harshly about in hindsight.

    In Germany, you have to chose your major right away; policy as far as minors are concerned varied widely in those days (i.e. early to mid eighties). My major was English, because I had liked it in school. There I leaned on the linguistics side because I soon found out that literature classes are mostly boring. Besides, I have alwas been interested in language(s). I soon dropped my previous minors (history and political science) in favor of Scandinavian languages and German linguistics.

    Having obtained my M.A., I decided to continue with a Ph.D. because I wanted to become a professor. When I was about halfway through with the Ph.D. I had understood that I (a) hated teaching and (b) was not cut out for a life of research on minute details. As I still did not know what I should do in my working life (being a Ph.D. student and research assistant seemed to me more like extended education, rather than work), I became a university administrator, which I still am. This has little to do with lingusitics, but the doctorate is sometimes helpful – there are people around who are impressed by titles ;-)

  18. Bill Walderman said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 7:24 am

    "He explained that he regarded undergraduate majors as an unwelcome distraction, for the most part,"

    How did he expect the discipline to perpetuate itself? This attitude seems like academic Shakerism.

    My recollection is that the Department of Mathematics at Harvard put a snotty statement in the catalogue to the effect that the Math Department was exclusively engaged in pure mathematics and that those interested in the application of mathematics to other disciplines such as physics and economics and computer science should address themselves to the Department of Applied Mathematics. It strikes me that this insular attitude and compartmentalization of disciplines was not a good idea, but what do I know?

  19. Nightstallion said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 7:26 am

    I'm currently on track for an MSc and then PhD in Mathematics, but plan to study Linguistics afterwards.

  20. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    I had a similar experience at Harvard with Professor Leonard Nash, whose Chemistry 2 course crammed all of Chemistry 1 and more into a single semester. On the first day of class, he told us we must be crazy to want to take the course and he suggested that we should all sign up for Chem 1 (which was a full-year) course. Fewer than half of the students showed up for the second meeting of the class.

  21. greg said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 8:52 am

    If I had discovered linguistics prior to my junior or senior year as an undergraduate, I probably would have made the switch to it. As it is, I ended up with a BA in Physics (yes, A), a degree in which I was a straight C student for my major classes, and which after halfway through my sophomore year, I knew I wasn't going to go to graduate school in. But I stayed in the degree because it was interesting as hell. By cutting from a BS to a BA, though, I reduced the number of required physics classes, which allowed me to pick up enough classes in other areas to earn 4 minors.

    Linguistics is one of about half a dozen subjects which I've encountered (in this case, tangentially through computer science and philosophy), which so fascinate me that, if I could, I'd go back to school and earn a degree in. For the time being, I satisfy my interest by reading blogs, the occasional scholarly article and books ranging from Chomsky and Wittgenstein to Geoff Nunberg's "The Years of Talking Dangerously".

  22. language hat said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 9:30 am

    Interesting — I too came to linguistics by way of math. I kind of wish I had had the same discouraging advice from someone in the math department; I had been a math whiz in high school and breezed through the first year in college, but then I hit a wall and realized I was no Ramanujan. Around the same time I quarreled with the math department (they wanted me to take calculus and more calculus, I liked mainly the useless stuff like topology and number theory), and since I had made friends in the Languages and Linguistics department and loved learning languages, I moved over without a qualm. (In grad school I had a similar realization to Achim's, exacerbated by hating my dissertation and not wanting to borrow more money, and left academia altogether.)

  23. Troy S. said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 9:30 am

    Well, I graduated with a double major in Latin and Physics. Neither turned out to be very marketable, and noe of the graduate schools I applied to were very interested in offering me any financial aid. So I ended up joining the military, but after reading blogs like this one I think maybe I've found a true calling, people I really fit in with.
    Grad school in linguistics seems promising for my return to civilian life, though I haven't really had a chance to look into it. Any potential problems or advice with a background like mine?

  24. Emily M. Bender said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 10:47 am

    @Graeme: I think that we (as linguistics faculty) need to make it easier (if not normative) for undergraduates in our programs to take math, statistics and computer programming.

  25. peter said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    Chris Lance said (July 27, 2009 @ 4:00 am)

    "That sounds like a substantial overestimate to me. Math Reviews lists around 40,000 articles a year, and I doubt whether most of them contain more than one or two results that deserve to be called a theorem. Surely the average cannot be as high as six theorems per paper."

    There are theorems proved in other disciplines besides mathematics, and published in journals not included in Math Reviews – eg, computer science, economics, even linguistics!

  26. Nick Z said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

    As someone who gave up maths at age 16 with some relief, the idea of it being "normative" for linguistics gives me the heebie-jeebies.

    [(myl) There are some subfields of linguistics where math beyond the junior-high-school level remains rare, and where people continue to make valuable contributions without it.

    But from a purely humanistic point of view, it's a shame that math is often taught in a heebie-jeebie-inducing way. Not enjoying math, and not being able to call on mathematical thinking when appropriate, is like not enjoying music, or reading, or drawing. It's a loss, it really is. Perhaps some people are genuinely math-blind, just as some are genuinely tone-deaf — but I'll bet that out of 100 smart and accomplished people who feel relief at being released from math instruction, more than 90 have been repelled by the teaching rather than by the subject.

    And the extension of computers into more and more areas of life creates more and more opportunity for understanding and using the mathematics behind digital representations of reality. It's an opportunity, not a necessity; and the kinds of mathematics involved are mostly not the ones that you gratefully turned your back on at age 16; but you can expect more and more fields, academic and otherwise, to use mathematics in fruitful ways. So maybe you should give it another shot — it's never too late! ]

  27. JT the Ninja said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

    My college search was a bit haphazard, as I wasn't quite sure what field of study appealed to me most. Writing and language, I knew, were my passions (especially after only managing a 4 on the AP Calculus AB test), but none of the places I visited really had Linguistics majors. I finally ended up at Carnegie Mellon University under Creative Writing, planning on becoming a poet and maybe taking up the Minor in Linguistics (rare is the Carnegie Mellon student who follows a single major and nothing else), as there was no major.

    Then I got into the classes, and the love of language that had been planted in me from a young age (one of my heroes has always been the linguist and poet J.R.R. Tolkein) took over. The only problem: no linguistics major. To my great satisfaction, the Linguistics Major was introduced in the fall of my senior year, by which time all of the requirements for my Creative Writing degree (and most of the Linguistics minor requirements) had been fulfilled. Two semesters of full-on linguistics classes, and I became the first graduating linguistics major (As an additional major, granted, so that I could take an additional elective instead of completing a thesis — most classes required papers, not exams, anyway).

    Bottom line: I never had as much enjoyment as I had in the classroom (and extra-classroom) discussions about linguistics. I still recommend the introductory linguistics course to every new student I meet ("What other class has you making weird sounds for half the class and spending the rest debating about what a consonant is?").

    Peace, JT

  28. Sarah said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

    @JT: I found my love of linguistics through Tolkien, too! I applied to college knowing that was what I wanted to study, and I wrote one of my application essays on how learning the Tengwar and decoding the Dwarvish and Elvish script on the title page of The Fellowship of the Ring made me realize that this was something I could "work on for hours on end and it never feels like a chore.” Then I enclosed a sheet of paper with my first paragraph transcribed into Tengwar. I guess I thought it would make me stand out. : )

    I declared the linguistics major in my second semester and paired it with a second major in French and a smattering of Russian. My only regret is that I never went back to math, since my AP scores tested me out of the math requirement and I was more than ready to be done with it. I think AP Calculus was the first math class that I really enjoyed, though it was hard for me (JT, your "only a 4" comment made me laugh, since I worked darn hard for my 4). I have no idea if I'd have done well at college-level math or computer science, but I wish I'd at least tried it out.

  29. Bill Walderman said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

    "But from a purely humanistic point of view, it's a shame that math is often taught in a heebie-jeebie-inducing way. Not enjoying math, and being able to call on mathematical thinking when appropriate, is like not enjoying music, or reading, or drawing. It's a loss, it really is."

    There was an attitude that prevailed until recently and probably still does in some quarters that math teaching and particularly calculus should be used as a filter to eliminate all but first-rate students. And you're right–it's a shame.

  30. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

    To the extent linguistics can present itself as a rigorous, empirically-based, and scientific endeavor that doesn't actually require doing any math, that's a great marketing strategy, although it may also be too good to be true. I must say that I can't recall any of my undergraduate linguistics teachers ever suggesting that serious math skills were potentially relevant to linguistics scholarship, although that may be because I wasn't paying attention and/or because I didn't spend any of my time over on the phonology/phonetics/Haskins Labs side of the Yale linguistics subculture, which is more where Miss Finn seems to have ended up. Perhaps if I'd studied with or otherwise sought the advice of myl's father (which I never did), he would have been more math-positive. Actually, the only college teacher I can even recall being excited about the possibilities of computer-searchable text corpora was the fellow from the Classics Department who taught me Homer. I was at the time I became a linguistics major a former Mathematically Precocious Youth ™ who had burned out on math very seriously at about age 16 and had no interest in coming out of retirement, so the lack-of-math aspect of linguistics as I experienced it was not a drawback.

    I'm curious about the "most offered a major" statement in Miss Finn's piece. Coming on 27 years after I decided not to apply there (although there were other reasons for that . . .), I see that Princeton still does not offer a linguistics major. I haven't taken a look, but I would suspect that if you took a list of 50 or 100 of the most famous/elite/prestigious/selective/influential/whatever colleges in the U.S. for undergraduate study there are a lot of others like that. I don't know what there is to be done about that, but the fact that colleges that would never not offer a classics major or philosophy major even if they only get single-digit enrollment in any given graduating class (because those are visible indicia of a full-spectrum, academically rigorous institution) may feel that offering linguistics is an option rather than a sine qua non for being taken seriously by peer institutions is a real problem.

  31. dr pepper said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

    There's also an idea that it's better to switch majors at each level. So academic shakerism is possible, but those who want to discourage undergrad majors should have alternates to recommend. Actually, i can see how coming into math after having specialized in something else might motivate students to find fresh ways to apply it.

  32. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

    When I arrived at college, I thought the description of linguistics looked interesting, but the introductory course had a 200 number, not a 100 number, so I thought I should wait until I was a sophomore to take linguistics. But I was considering a couple of different majors, so I wandered along to the linguistics department to ask about the major and the background needed for it.

    The department secretary told me to wait, ducked into an office, and sat me down. I made a few nervous comments to the rather intimidating Prof. Charles Hockett, and he told me I should not wait to take linguistics, I should go right to the college office and change my class schedule.

    So I did. I ended up majoring in English and taking linguistics courses and a class in semantics in the philosophy department. I also met a student who became my husband in linguistics class. (He was trying to major in computer science, which was then only offered as a concentration in the math department.)

    It was years later before I understood the connection between the number of enrolled students and majors, the departmental budget and Hockett's reaction. Perhaps mathematics departments have enough enrollment that advisors can afford to be choosy — other departments don't, at least under the budget premises my alma mater apparently espoused.

  33. Tom said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

    Certainly it is generally to the economic benefit of academic programs to boost their enrollments. Mathematics is a little exceptional in that if you add up the enrollments in all of a math department's courses the lion's share is likely to come from "service courses" (such as relatively low-level calculus courses) that are primarily for students who will major in something other than math. In a sense, we math professors largely earn our keep by teaching such courses. This is not to deny that we also have all the same reasons as other kinds of academics for wishing that large numbers of students would major in our subject; but the service courses take a bit of the edge off.

    About the shakerism: another possible viewpoint is that academics at the PhD level is a bit like a pyramid scheme.

  34. Stephen Jones said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:12 am

    There was a Professor of Tibetan at SOAS that managed to persuade the authorities that they should only have post-graduate studies in Tibetan, and cancel the undergraduate courses. As SOAS was the only place in the UK where you could study undergraduate Tibetan, he wasn't exactly overrun with graduate students.

  35. Loving languages is (not) enough « Chad Howe said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

    […] by lchowe on July 29, 2009 In a recent Language Log post, Prof. Mark Liberman discusses a NYT article written by Emily Finn, "How I Learned to Stop […]

  36. Corcaighist said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    I really only came to linguistics as an accident. During my final year of a B.Comm. in commerce and French, and tired of marketing and literature, I took two lingustics classes (French lingustics and French language in Canada) and was hooked from then on. Currently I'm doing an M. Phil. in applied linguistics and hope to go on to do Ph.D.

  37. JT the Ninja said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 8:45 am

    @Sarah: At Carnegie Mellon, a 4 doesn't exempt you from anything, unfortunately. And believe me, AP Calculus was one of the reasons I entered the English department.

    I actually included samples of my constructed languages (a hobby of mine influenced, of course, by Tolkein) with my college applications. I can't say whether or not it helped me — during an interview with one of the professors, I also quoted the first few lines of Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English, which would probably have had the same effect — but I figured it couldn't hurt.


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