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Linguistics is the scientific study of language, its structure, use and acquisition. The Linguistics programme offers basic training in contemporary theories of language, and addresses such issues as the universal properties of natural language and the human mind, language acquisition in various modes and modalities, and language in different contexts of use.

Students are encouraged to apply linguistic theories to the investigation of a wide variety of languages, including endangered languages, minority languages and sign languages. They will gain an appreciation of linguistics as an interdisciplinary field that crosses the traditional boundary between the arts and the sciences drawing ideas and tools from various disciplines. At the practical level, linguistics training raises students’ bilingual and multilingual awareness and sharpens their sensitivity to the complexity of human language. Such training builds the linguistic resources necessary for students’ careers and postgraduate study, and enables them to make informed judgments about the language issues of their own speech community.

Starting from 2019, CUHK Linguistics students are offered an option to participate in a dual degree programme with Peking University, studying two years in each campus. Upon successful completion of graduation requirements at both universities, students will be awarded with BA in Linguistics by CUHK and BA in Chinese Language by Peking University. Students will not only benefit from the strengths of the two programmes, enriching their training in linguistics, but also widen their horizon through immersing in a different learning environment, enhancing their competitive edge for their further studies and career development.

An Adventure in Languages

Ever since she was in secondary school, Joan Wong had been trying to understand language. Lingering in her mind were questions like ‘how can a child acquire something as complicated as a language so easily’ and ‘why are some speech sounds more difficult to produce than others?’ It was not until she joined the Linguistics programme at CUHK that these scattered thoughts gave way to a clearer picture, one that motivated Joan to go on with her exploration of the many-splendoured world of language.

‘Linguistics is a highly scientific and empirical study of language. With training in theoretical linguistics, which covers phonetics, phonology, syntax and semantics, I was prepared to delve into the many issues concerning language,’ said Joan.

In the course of her four years in the programme, Joan came to look at language from a broader perspective. ‘Linguistics is a field transcending the humanities and the sciences. It is closely connected with disciplines like neuroscience, psychology and anthropology. We’ve learnt to appreciate the human, cultural and social dimensions of language, and what I’ve got out of the Linguistics programme has provided me with penetrating insights into language and made me more devoted to the subject,’ Joan added. ‘The fun thing about linguistics is that most of our research questions are inspired by observations of everyday linguistic phenomena. To investigate these issues, many of which originate from day-to-day conversations, is to witness language at work around you.’

Ranked 31st in the 2022 QS World Universities Rankings by Subject, the Linguistics programme at CUHK combines theory and practice. Offering training in contemporary theories of language and in objective analysis of language, the programme aims to equip students with stronger bilingual and multilingual awareness and foster a greater sensitivity to the nuances of language. What especially attracted Joan to the programme, though, was its uniqueness. For one, the programme is the only one in Asia that offers training in sign language, an emblem of how language transcends the usual mode of communication and how it transforms under exceptional circumstances. The curriculum also comprises courses on modern languages, which enable students to understand how language varies and to appreciate the significance of bilingual or multilingual competence and intercultural communication.

For Joan, the modern language components had been most rewarding. She studied German and was on exchange in Heidelberg for one year. ‘I took the many opportunities to polish up my German at Heidelberg. Inside and outside the classroom, I communicated with people from various regions, breaking down linguistic and cultural barriers and bonding with those from all kinds of backgrounds. I learned to embrace different cultures and values and to respect others. I became independent and gained a sense of prudence, learning also a more modest way of living. It was truly an enjoyable experience.’

Joan’s grasp of linguistics and German put her on track for success. Working at a German multinational corporation locating in Hong Kong after graduation, she said the training she had received, especially that in theoretical linguistics, had equipped her with strong analytical and logical thinking skills, with which she managed to excel at work and fast-track her career. ‘Identifying distributional patterns of allophones and phonological rules of an unfamiliar language in phonology is like detecting issues in, say, an IT system; drawing syntactic trees and forming logical formulae in syntax and semantics are like writing Excel formulae and charting workflows for data analytics,’ explained Joan.

Indeed, linguistic graduates are presented with a wide range of career options according to Professor Peggy Mok, Coordinator of the Linguistics Major Programme at the Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages. Other than language education, they are also in a strong position to pursue careers in business and public administration, interpretation and translation, journalism, and media and communication-related services. The skills they have acquired as linguistics students are readily transferrable to the workplace.

As Professor Mok noted, such a variety of career opportunities is made possible by their mastery of language, which comes with the solid training given by the programme. Incorporating elements of research and report writing, advanced linguistics courses can help students improve their analytical and writing skills. Meanwhile, the programme places much emphasis on communication skills. Students are encouraged to participate in exchange programmes or to pursue a second major or a minor. In the past three years, over 40% of the students have graduated with a minor in French, German, Japanese, Korean or Spanish.

With the programme admitting only 20 students every year, the Department is very much like a home to its small population. ‘The intensive training offered by the Department made me the open-minded, humble and curious learner fitted for the study of language. These traits, all of which are crucial for academic research, could not have taken root in our minds had it not been for our professors, ever so patient and meticulous in guiding us,’ said Joan, who is grateful for having met her peers as well as her teachers. ‘My classmates and I had close relationships. Together we learn and grow, going hand in hand through ups and downs.’

For those that are not sure if the programme is for them, here is a fun way of figuring it out suggested by Professor Mok. Consider the following statements, all of which have to do with language issues:

  • I wonder why there are so many different languages.
  • I want to know if babies truly soak up languages like a sponge.
  • It’s often claimed that language is unique to humans. I want to find out if there are also language systems for animals.
  • I wonder how people suffering from language disorders communicate with other people.
  • Some languages are endangered. I’d like to preserve and document them.
  • I’d like to train robots to talk!
  • I like to travel and learn more about other languages and cultures.

If you agree with more than one of these statements, you’re in for a treat being part of the Linguistics programme. ‘I’m glad I’ve chosen to be in an area that I’m truly interested in,’ said Joan. ‘If you really like languages and want to know how they work, linguistics is for you. Be prepared for an array of learning opportunities and, most of all, a great deal of fun.’

Starting from 2019, CUHK Linguistics majors are given the option of enrolling in a dual-degree programme run in collaboration with Peking University. Having spent two years at each university, students will be awarded the Bachelor of Arts in Chinese Language degree by Peking University in addition to the Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics degree by CUHK upon successful completion of graduation requirements. Students may gain a different perspective on life, having been exposed to a different environment, besides getting knowledge and skills that they will find useful for further studies, career development and beyond.

Published: Summer 2017
Last Updated: Summer 2022