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Department Spotlight

The Power of Words: CAS Launches Linguistics Minor

Amelia Tseng talks about Linguistics as key to understanding humanity

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How are men and women socialized to speak differently? What role does language play in reinforcing stereotypes and biases? How are words manipulated by politicians and media pundits to influence public opinion? In what ways is AI already transforming language and communication across cultures?

Beginning this fall, American University students can explore questions like these in a new and much anticipated Linguistics minor, which will reside in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of World Languages and Cultures (WLC).

The 18-credit minor Linguistics minor is designed to complement degrees across disciplines. After all, language and communication are fundamental to all industries, says Amelia Tseng, AU Assistant Professor of Spanish and Linguistics, who directs the new minor. Right now, students in Tseng’s Principles of Linguistics class are majoring or minoring in Linguistics, International Studies, English Language and Literature, Creative Writing, Arabic Language, Japanese Language and Culture, Anthropology, Communications, Government, Film and Media Arts, TESOL, Education, and Finance.

“There’s so much excitement about Linguistics, and my classes are already filled with enthusiastic students,” said Tseng in a recent phone interview. In this conversation and several follow-up emails, Tseng discussed the growing field of Linguistics, what students can expect to learn, and how this expertise can be applied to careers across disciplines.

Q. Linguistics is the scientific study of language. What does that really mean?

Linguistics is a broad field with many specializations. Some linguists study the sounds of the world’s languages, some study their grammars, some study how children learn languages, some study how languages are processed in the brain, some study endangered languages, some study language and gender, some study language and technology, some study language and education, and there are many more areas of linguistics.  

Sociolinguists like me study language in its social and cultural context. In my case, since I study language, identity, and bilingualism, I also focus on subjects such as race, migration, and education.

Q. Why do words—and the study of words—matter in today’s world?

Words and other elements of language matter because they construct reality. I often say that language is like the air we breathe, or like water to a fish: it surrounds us, and we depend on it absolutely, but it's so ubiquitous that we often don't think about it. Yet language is fundamental to humans and society, from our ability to cooperate, create societies, and keep those societies moving forward. From the words we use to describe ourselves and others, to the heated cultural debate over gender neutral pronouns, words matter to people, and the way we describe things shapes and reflects our social reality. Words make things possible and have the power to advance or limit possibilities. Language speaks to who we are, where we come from, and who we want to be. That's why people feel so passionately about language. And nowadays with social media, the Internet, and globalization, language has more reach than ever before, so words matter more than ever. The world is more connected than ever, and language plays an integral role in what kind of world it is going to be.

Q. There’s a lot of buzz about the new minor, and a lot of excitement from students. Why is Linguistics so popular? 

Linguistics is popular because it's such an active part of the world. The new generation is more language-savvy, and this is reflected in Linguistics’ popularity for undergraduates across the country. American University students are socially active and interested in understanding the world and making it a better place. They understand that language is not just the ability to communicate directly, but what is said and left unsaid. How you express yourself, including interculturally and in different languages, is a hugely important skill. Understanding how and why this works is a key part of understanding the social world and making it a better place.  

Students understand that Linguistics is an important part of diversity and human rights rather than something that's somehow separate from the rest of the human experience. And they are interested in learning about language for its own sake. Languages themselves are always changing to reflect new realities. There are so many ways to understand language in the world, even more so with the technology we have available to us today, and yet at the same time the limitations of computer-generated language versus the intimate connection of humans speaking to each other in real life or through different media remains. Linguistics is a lot of fun!  

Q. That's so interesting. How do technology and texting affect the way young people think about language and communication? 

The current generation, having grown up with social media and Internet technology, has been immersed in language in a different way to previous generations, and I think has a more innate sense of its variety and importance. They have access to different languages and ways of using language – including forms like texting that didn’t exist in the past – in ways that their parents and grandparents did not, and this makes them more aware of the importance of understanding language as part of the world and of being a skilled language user.  

On the first day of class this semester, I asked how many people knew what Linguistics was. Several students had been studying linguistics on their own as a kind of hobby before taking my class. The same thing happened at AU Preview Day – I had conversations with prospective students who knew about and were interested in Linguistics. Ten years ago, that would not have happened. Students were not exposed to linguistics before they got to college. But that’s changing. 

Q. You have said that the Linguistics minor reflects the values of American University. Can you explain? 

The AU Linguistics minor is inherently a sociocultural approach to language. Students learn a new way of seeing and hearing the world that centers language as necessary for understanding diversity, improving inclusivity, and enacting positive social transformation. They also learn critical thinking and hands-on empirical research skills that are applicable throughout the social sciences and humanities, and in their future lives. AU students are socially involved and interested in making the world a better place. This minor gives them a new lens and skill set through which to do this. 

Q. Can you tell us about some of the Linguistics classes that students can take, and what they can expect to learn in these classes?  

We have many exciting Linguistics classes and more planned. The Linguistics minor starts with core classes to provide a foundation; Principles of Linguistics is an introduction to the field. Other core classes offer an in-depth look into key areas of linguistics: the sounds of language around the world; the structure of words and sentences; and how language changes over time.

We approach all classes with a focus not just on the linguistic content, but also on the social aspect – what language means to people. So, in Sounds of Language and their Meaning, you’ll learn not just about why human languages sound the way they do, but also about accents, linguistic identity, and language discrimination. In Words and Language Structure, in addition to how words and sentences are constructed, you might also learn about why gender-neutral pronouns tap into heated cultural debates. In Sociohistorical Linguistics, you’ll learn about how languages change over time and how this relates to universal linguistic processes as well as social phenomena like migration and colonization. In Linguistic Research Methods, you’ll conduct your own hands-on linguistics research.

At the elective level, the Linguistics minor draws on a wide range of courses so that students can tailor their program of study to their personal interests. The minor is designed to interface with other majors and minors in World Languages & Cultures and beyond, including the translation certificate. Ultimately, we want students to understand the world critically through the lens of language and to be able to apply this in their other areas of interest to make a positive difference in the world. 

Q. What are some of the skills and areas of expertise that students will acquire in these classes, and how can they be applied to different career paths?   

Students engage with language as part of the big picture of critical social issues and gain the ability to think critically about themselves and about society. Linguistics is a field with a foot in both the social sciences and the humanities, and students receive a rigorous background in critical thinking, theorizing, and empirical research through this dual lens. The Linguistics minor provides them with a solid foundation for future Linguistics study, such as graduate school, with Linguistics knowledge that can be productively applied in other areas of their lives and work, and with critical thinking and practical skills that are broadly applicable and in demand by employers.

Linguistics study increases students’ awareness of communication and interpersonal skills along with their knowledge of language, diversity, and how language works in the world. The minor’s multilingual design emphasizes the importance of intercultural communication in a global world. AU students often want to go forth and work in areas like diplomacy, foreign service, and nonprofits – areas where they will interact with people from other cultures with different language and communication norms – and in many other fields where language and communication are important. A deep understanding of language and how to use it and critically consider it in different situations is an invaluable skill. 

Our Linguistics classes engage students with real data, encourage them to develop their own research projects, and get them out in the field. Through this and a wide range of class group and individual activities, students gain transferable skills such as problem-solving, analytical reasoning, and critical thinking and technical skills such as writing, quantitative and qualitative data analysis, analytic software, and technology. They also gain leadership, teamwork, and management skills, and the ability to be creative and adaptive under real-world research conditions. 

Q. What are some specific fields where Linguists are working?  

I know linguists who are teaching and researching at universities, working on language and technology at Apple and at Mango Languages, in the State Department, Foreign Service Institute, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Institutes of Health, applying linguistics in medical research and in legal cases, working in translation, working at non-profits, and more. Linguists are involved in social justice efforts on college campuses and more broadly.  

Linguists also do public-facing media. A great example is the Lingthusiasm podcast, which many students already know. We speak on NPR and on national television, make movies about linguistics – some great examples are the Do You Sound American? and Talking Black in America series – and consult for TV shows, such as the Saved by the Bell reboot. In pop culture, linguists have been the subject of movies such as Arrival (2016) and television shows (Manhunt: Unabomber).

Q. You have an exciting event coming up, can you share the details?

Yes! We are very excited about the upcoming Hugo J. Mueller Linguistics Lecture on October 26, from 5:30-6:30 p.m. in the SIS Abramson Family Founders Room. You can register for Hugo J. Mueller Linguistics Lecture.

We have a wonderful inaugural speaker, Dr. Nelson Flores from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Flores is a world-renowned scholar on race and language, a pioneer of the influential racial linguistic theory, and someone whose work has been very influential in linguistics, the social sciences more broadly, and education. He's also a very engaging speaker with a great audience connection.

Dr. Flores will be sharing “A Raciolinguistic Autobiography of the Self,” drawing on his own experiences as a child of Puerto Rican migrants who navigated the public school system as a student and later as an ESL teacher, and how all of his positionalities come together to influence his work as a cutting-edge scholar at an elite research institution who is also a person of color.

Stay tuned for other Linguistics events and follow us on Instagram for updates!