Linguistics and computer science: A surprising connection

Linguistics and computer science have plenty to offer individually and combined. You may find yourself at computer science's cutting edge by pairing these unlikely fields.
Written by Doug Wintemute, Contributor

Linguistics and computer science intertwined in the mid-20th century. Computers help linguists better understand and analyze languages and computer scientists use linguistics to advance programming. For example, computational linguistics led to the development of AI assistants such as Siri and Google Assistant.

Here, we examine the relationship between these disciplines. We also look at how training in both areas can help professionals excel in the interdisciplinary and independent fields.

The relationship between linguistics and computer science

Linguistics and computer science both deal with languages. 

While linguistics examines conveyance, processing, and the evolution of natural languages, computer science applies the same questions to programming.

Both fields deal with syntax, semantics, and instructions — and how people perceive them.

Computer science can help linguists study natural languages, and computer scientists draw from linguists when designing programming languages.

Computational linguistics: Bringing the two together

According to the Linguistic Society of America, computational linguistics uses computers to analyze natural languages and how people process them. The interdisciplinary field formally began in the 1940s and 1950s with machine translation. Computational linguistics arose as these systems increased in complexity.

Since then, computers have helped researchers better understand how people develop and process language and how meaning and sounds change over time. The field has contributed to applications such as: 

  • Speech recognition software
  • Spellcheck
  • Translation technologies
  • Search engines
  • Social media 

For example, understanding synonyms and the many ways people phrase questions help search engines connect users with the answers they want.

Computational linguistics could someday lead to computers understanding, analyzing, and translating all texts and languages. Computers may even use language as well as humans do. 

Can learning about linguistics make you a better programmer?

Linguistics teaches you about the rules and patterns of language. Students in this field learn to process multiple languages more easily, spotting their structures, patterns, and details. This background can certainly help you in computer programming

Even the easiest programming languages require coders to pay attention to the relationship between words and meaning. 

Interpreters, compilers, and parsers also connect to linguistics theories and principles. After all, both computers and other programmers need to understand programming languages. 

Degrees in linguistics and computer science

Students who choose to study linguistics and computer science may be fascinated by both natural and computer languages or want to use technology to find connections and patterns between languages. 

You can double-major or combine a major and minor. You might pair a linguistics minor with a computer science degree. They can also select electives and build a specialization, such as taking a computer programming degree with linguistics electives. 

Some schools offer combined training in these fields, like a computational linguistics degree or a bachelor's in linguistics and computer science. 

Identify which discipline you most value and wish to emphasize when deciding which route to take.  

What can you do with a degree in linguistics and computer science?

Graduates with a linguistics and computer science degree can pursue interdisciplinary careers, including teaching, computational linguistics, data science, artificial intelligence, and machine learning engineering roles. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 22% growth in employment for computer and information research scientists between 2020 and 2030. Professionals who create new programming languages are especially in-demand. The median annual salary in May 2020 was $126,830 in this field.

Graduates can also qualify for careers in each discipline, such as traditional computer science jobs and linguistics roles as translators and interpreters. Both fields are growing. 

The BLS projects 13% growth in employment for computer occupations and 24% for translators and interpreters 2020-30. 

In conclusion

Once you start thinking about the connections between linguistics and computer science, you find the two fields have much more in common than you first thought. 

By training in these areas, you strengthen your abilities in each field and give yourself access to the expanding interdisciplinary worlds linking them.

Unless otherwise noted, salary and job growth data is drawn from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as of March 28, 2022.

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