A systematic look at language

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Linguistics Major Attracts Students From Various Areas of Study



UMD Professors Dan Turner and Chongwon Park  
Dan Turner and Chongwon Park are two of three faculty in the Linguistics major  
 

“My sophomore year, I took Dan Turner’s class, Intro to Linguistics,” Kayla Feige said. “It rocked my world, and it brought ideas to my head that I’d never even thought about.”

Linguistics is a relatively new major that has been offered in the College of Liberal Arts since the fall of 2013. Linguistics is a scientific and statistical study of language. For a lot of students, it’s an unknown area of study.

Feige originally planned on majoring in environmental science but switched to the linguistics major after taking the intro class.

She explained that studying language is like looking at a tree. Normally, we just see the outer layers of the bark and leaves and never think beyond that. This is similar to how some people see language. We use it every day but never delve deeper into its mechanical meaning.

Now she’s sees the world as if she is lying under the tree, from the bottom up. She sees the life of the tree thriving and how intricate the branches cross over one another.

Now, when it comes to language, she digs to find its meaning from a critical thinking standpoint.

“It’s a chance to understand ourselves.” Feige said.

“Linguistics is appealing because normally, you don’t analyze your own natural language because you just speak it,” Associate Professor Chongwon Park, who is also the Department Head of Writing Studies, said. “It’s like when you use an elevator, you never think how the elevator is working, you just press the button. Just because you know how to use it, doesn’t mean you are an expert. Assume the elevator is language – I am not particularly interested in how to use it, although some people are. My interest is in its internal function. When you start to think of language like that it is surprisingly systematic.”

UMD student Kayla Feige  

Kayla Feige is majoring in UMD's new linguistics program

 
UMD linguistics professor Will Salmon  
Assistant Professor Will Salmon  
UMD student Kevin Swanberg  
Senior Kevin Swanberg  
   
Linguistics relative to the humanities

Feige is double majoring in Latin American studies and is thinking of becoming a translator, something related more to the humanities field.

She said a number of companies are looking for linguists to translate. For example, companies that provide security contractors, staffing, training, translation, and related services to U.S. Government clients.

Feige is traveling to Belize this May. After graduation, she might also be interested in volunteering in South American countries.

“I wish I could give you a solid answer with what my linguistic major will bring after graduation,” Feige said. “But I think the only way we can understand where we’re supposed to be is to go find it.”

Assistant Professor Will Salmon, one of three faculty members in the linguistics department, comes from a humanities-based background.

“The field itself is wide enough that there are those who are humanities-minded, like I have been for a long time and those who are more scientific-minded, so there’s a little bit of something for everyone.” Salmon said.

“Language is the vehicle of perception and identity and with knowing more about language, we can find out more about ourselves and our beliefs,” Instructor Dan Turner said. “Language is too powerful, interesting, and intrinsic to take for granted.”

Modern linguistics as an independent discipline that has only been around for 60 to 70 years. There are unique opportunities for students and faculty to make a significant contribution.

Linguistics relative to the sciences

Kevin Swanberg, a senior majoring in linguistics and computer science, did a year of undergraduate research with Park.

“We studied the accuracy of Google translate,” Swanberg explained. “I wrote a computer program that pulled 10,000 or so sentences and sent them through google translate – which is translated from English to Spanish and then back to English.”

“We then looked at the results to see how accurate Google translate was and what kind of errors popped up and tried to develop some solutions for those common errors.” Swanberg said.

Kevin’s research as a language analyst is exactly the type of thing a student could do graduating with a degree in linguistics.

“As technology develops, language is becoming more and more integral,” Swanberg said. “So being able to understand language with technology is really an asset.”

“I encourage my students to double major in computer science, not only so they can be competent linguists but so they can know both fields,” Park said. “They can be a perfect candidate for those positions like a language analyst and the salary is extremely high.”

For more information contact Chongwon Park at cpark2@d.umn.edu.



Written by Mackenzie Timm. February, 2015.

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Cheryl Reitan, creitan@d.umn.edu


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