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W&M first in Virginia to offer bachelor’s degree in linguistics

  • Rapidly evolving field:
    Rapidly evolving field:  The abundance of available technology provides opportunities to explore language structure and language use in many more sophisticated ways than was once possible.  Submitted photo
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William & Mary became the first school in the Commonwealth of Virginia to offer a bachelor’s degree in linguistics following a recent approval by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to make it a stand-alone degree. 

A July 30 SCHEV letter to W&M Provost Peggy Agouris states that the new Bachelor of Arts in linguistics was endorsed to begin in the fall 2020 semester. 

Although no longer an interdisciplinary program, linguistics will still be administered through the Roy R. Charles Center.

“This is particularly important as more and more students come to college knowing that they want to study and major in linguistics,” said Linguistics Program Director Anya Hogoboom. “Offering a B.A. in linguistics makes William & Mary more visible to these students and accurately reflects the resources we have for students majoring in linguistics.” 

Linguistics was one of the earliest interdisciplinary programs at William & Mary, with a major first officially available in 1978. In May 2020, 24 majors and eight minors graduated from the program. 

Linguistics students learn about speech sounds, word formation and sentence structure of the world’s languages, along with models for representing linguistic knowledge in the mind and tools for discovering the structure of different languages. They also study language change, including the history of English and language variation within communities, including social and political bases. 

“The field of linguistics has been evolving rapidly in the last 15 years or so, with the explosion of available technology that allows us to look at language structure and language use in more ways than used to be possible,” Hogoboom said. “For example, data sets can be made through web scraping of platforms such as Twitter to look at current language use. These newer methods, coupled with the strengths W&M’s Linguistics Program already had, allows us to offer students a grounded and dynamic major.    

“In the last eight years, the linguistics program at William & Mary has gained five new language labs and working groups in sound perception, syntactic processing, bilingual code-switching, discourse analysis and children's language acquisition, which give students research experience,” Hogoboom continued. “In the last four years, the program has had regular large lab meetings where faculty and students come together and share the progression of their research. We plan to keep building on this success and continue to expand hands-on research opportunities to more students.”  

W&M linguistics graduates have gone on to careers in a multitude of fields, from speech-language pathology and teaching to software engineering and journalism. 

“The linguistics education my amazing faculty, such as Professors Anya Hogoboom, Anne Charity Hudley, Ann Reed and Jack Martin provided me as an undergrad sparked the passion I still carry with me more than 10 years later in my career, and it deserves to be recognized as its own department,” Kathryn Ticknor ’07, director of research at inVibe Labs wrote in an endorsement letter. 

“Furthermore, linguistics is a fast-growing field outside of academia in areas such as consulting, healthcare, marketing, research, human centered design and technology. In the future, I’d love to see W&M’s classes focus on these applications and celebrate the use of linguistics outside the university setting, since that’s where many of us will end up when we graduate.” 

Hogoboom said the work of Martin, the program’s director from 2016 to 2019, was critical in transforming linguistics into a stand-alone B.A. degree. “He initiated the process and worked tirelessly to write and revise the proposal,” she added. 

Hogoboom said Associate Provost for Institutional Accreditation & Effectiveness Susan Bosworth guided the linguistics team at every step. 

“She worked to clarify both our needs to SCHEV and SCHEV’s requirements to us,” Hogoboom said. “While Martin and Bosworth did the direct work involved, we are lucky to have faculty that bring so many different skills across different subfields to the table. The proposal reflects the expertise of our faculty, which allows us to offer a linguistics major with strong breadth and depth despite a relatively small number of faculty.” 

Much hard work went into the proposal process. W&M was tasked with demonstrating the demand for a B.A. in linguistics and gathering supporting data. For example, the university polled linguistics alums, who responded resoundingly of how their work in linguistics at W&M trained them in analytical problem solving and pattern finding while also giving them an appreciation for language diversity. 

“My degree is one of the tipping points that got me the job as an executive assistant at Disney, assisting the president of the theatrical group, and it was a principal topic in each of my interviews,” wrote Barclay Sparrow ’17, an executive assistant with the Disney Theatrical Group. “The Disney execs running the hiring process were fascinated by the degree and loved discussing what it entails. 

“My experience in sociolinguistics comes into my day-to-day life in unexpected ways. I am able to assess, explain and account for possible instances of bias and prejudice because that is a critical part of sociolinguistics. It comes in handy at a company with a strong focus on representing many different cultures responsibly and faithfully.”