UMass Amherst Linguistics Department Establishes Undergraduate Major Following Trustee Approval

AMHERST, Mass. - The University of Massachusetts department of linguistics, which to date has only been offering master’s and doctorate degrees, has received approval from the Board of Trustees to establish an undergraduate major. The move comes in response both to growing interest in the field and to the recent National Research Council (NRC) report which ranked the UMass graduate program in linguistics as number one in the nation. Linguistics is the study of the nature and structure of human language.

"Since we already have an excellent graduate program, and a full range of undergraduate course offerings, we are able to establish an undergraduate major with no additional cost to the University," says Ellen Woolford, head of the department of linguistics.

At present, undergraduates can major in linguistics only by combining it with another subject or by arranging a special concentration,Woolford says. While this suits the needs of some, there are still many students who would prefer to concentrate on linguistics exclusively. Moreover, Woolford says, the demand for undergraduate linguistics majors is growing. Fields such as computer science and law draw heavily upon linguistics majors, and graduate programs in linguistics increasingly expect entering students to already have an undergraduate degree in the major.

"To help prepare our students, we really need to offer an undergraduate degree," Woolford says. "The national trends are such that we must adapt to meet the demand."

Woolford says that the University is one of only a few schools in the Northeast currently responding to this demand, and adds that the program here will offer a specialization in theoretical linguistics. She explains that theoretical linguistics focuses on the nature of language and the human capacity for acquiring and processing language, as opposed to applied linguistics, which takes the results of such theoretical work and applies them to areas such as language instruction, language use, or teaching computers how to understand human speech. Woolford says the department covers a diverse range of sub-areas under the umbrella of theoretical linguistics, including language universals, grammatical structures, language acquisition, language processing, and most recently, African-American English.

"This is the beginning of an exciting time in the department, and we look forward to having our undergraduate program ranked as highly as our graduate program," Woolford says.