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Meet Jon Gajewski, Head of Linguistics

Department of Linguistics
Ph.D.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Office Location: Oak Hall

What would you say are the areas of strength of the Department of Linguistics?
The Department of Linguistics at UConn is a leading center of scientific approaches to the study of language. Our graduate program is consistently ranked as one of the best doctoral programs in the country for experimental and theoretical research in linguistics. We have long been renowned for our strengths in the study of child language acquisition and of syntax, the study of sentence structure; and we have also built strengths in phonology, the study of sounds in language; morphology, the study of word formation; and semantics, the study of meaning.

Are there any common misconceptions about your field?
Linguistics is the scientific study of language and its structure. But the most common misconception linguists encounter is the assumption that we all speak many languages, and that our work revolves around speaking and using many languages. There are many linguists who are polyglots, and this can be useful in many types of linguistic research, but certainly not all of us are. You don’t need to be fluent in multiple languages to engage in the scientific study of language as we do.

What interests students in studying your field?
Language is a central part of our identity as a species and as individuals, and because it makes us uniquely human, it is a subject of deep fascination. Students are often attracted to linguistics, as I was, by the accessibility of the research questions. There are intriguing puzzles about language right under our noses that have only been subjected to proper scientific inquiry for the last 50 years. Because linguistics is a comparatively young scientific field, there are many things we don’t yet know about language, so students have the opportunity to make exciting new discoveries, even at the undergraduate level. Linguists are discovering new puzzles and new ways to explore them every day.

What are the most popular or most loved classes taught in your department?
Language and Mind, LING1010, is our largest class and one of the most popular. The class sets up the study of language within the broader context of the philosophy of language, developmental psychology and other branches of cognitive science. I think students seek it out because it teaches them many surprising new things about language, a faculty that we often take for granted.

What types of jobs do undergraduate and graduate students pursue after attaining a degree in your field?
Many of our undergraduate students who earn linguistics/philosophy or linguistics/psychology degrees pursue graduate studies in linguistics and related fields or continue on to professional schools. Linguistics undergraduates who are interested in cognitive science can pursue careers in fields related to human behavior and brain function. Our Ph.D. graduates typically have success in finding jobs in academia, as teachers and researchers around the world.

Where do you see your field going in the next 10 years?
The field of linguistics is hard at work integrating the detailed findings of linguistic theory with the findings of the broader cognitive science community. Linguistics is one of the founding fields of the interdisciplinary field of cognitive science, and as such has strong relationships with psychology, neuroscience, computer science, philosophy and mathematics within UConn and across the world. UConn’s new Brain Imaging Research Center, with its new fMRI machine and other technical capabilities, has greatly expanded the ability of cognitive science researchers at UConn, including linguistics faculty and students, to conduct research on and to teach about the brain and its function.

Traditionally, linguistics has focused on widely-spoken languages, mostly on Indo-European languages, Chinese, Japanese, and a few others. But now our field is pushing empirical boundaries by collecting data from a larger number and greater variety of the world’s languages – those that are spoken by fewer people but still contribute volumes to our knowledge of how language works. Our understanding of language will deepen as we develop our theories to account for these data, and try to move together toward a theory that can explain the universals of grammar and structure that underpin all the world’s languages.

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