If you are considering becoming a linguistics major, you probably know something about the field of linguistics already. However, you may find it hard to answer people who ask you, “What exactly is linguistics, and what does a linguist do?” They might assume that it means you speak a lot of languages. And they may be right: you may, in fact, be a polyglot! But while many linguists do speak multiple languages – or at least know a fair bit about multiple languages – the study of linguistics means much more than this.
Linguistics is the scientific study of language. Many topics fall under this umbrella. At the heart of linguistics is an understanding of: the unconscious knowledge that humans have about language; how children acquire language; the structure of language in general and of particular languages; how languages vary; how languages change over time; how language influences the way in which we interact with each other and think about the world.
Linguists investigate how people acquire their knowledge about language and how this knowledge interacts with other cognitive processes, how it varies across speakers and geographic regions, and how to model this knowledge computationally. They study how to represent the structure of various aspects of language (such as sound or meaning), how to account for different linguistic patterns theoretically, and how the different components of language interact with each other. Linguists develop and test scientific hypotheses. Many linguists do field work to collect linguistic data, many linguists work in labs and perform experiments, and many appeal to statistical analysis, mathematics, and logical formalism to account for the patterns they observe.