Co-president of the BYU Linguistics Student Society Eric Christensen said he does not think many students understand what linguistics is, but if they did, they would join the program.
“Linguistics is the scientific study of language,” Christensen said. “I feel like it’s the perfect blend of the humanities and harder skills.”
Christensen’s journey to the linguistics program was a long one, he said. He began his BYU career in the physics department before jumping to psychology, where he said he discovered linguistics via psycholinguistic research.
Now in the program, Christensen leads the LSS alongside his friend Brandon Torruella. They share academic interests and play guitar and octave mandolin in BYU’s Celtic Folk Ensemble together.
It is not uncommon for linguistics majors to arrive in the program circuitously, Torruella said. “It’s a major that’s perfect for people and they don’t know that it’s perfect for them.”
Despite these trends in program enrollment, Torruella said he has always known he wanted to study linguistics. He was first exposed to the field in middle school, when he was studying Latin and German.
“What’s always interested me is language change and the relationship between languages,” he said.
Torruella’s family moved often during his childhood while serving in the U.S. Navy, spending time in Virginia, Japan, Germany, Italy and California.
Torruella said he has language experience with English, French, Norwegian, German, Latin, Japanese and Spanish to varying degrees. The next language on his list is Dutch or Mandarin Chinese.
“I’ve never described myself as a polyglot,” he said. “I’m just someone who keeps observing and listening and mimicking what people say.”
Torruella also has coding languages such as Python, C++ and Java in his linguistic repertoire. Following graduation, he said he is interested in working in the tech industry.
Linguistics professor Jeff Parker acknowledged the department produces a diverse group of graduates. “The core thing that all of our students leave with is an ability to take some kind of question or observation and systematically investigate it,” he said.
This academic approach, which is inherent to linguistics, gives students a strong foundation in a variety of fields, he said.
The BYU Department of Linguistics not only produces students with diverse experience, it also attracts them. “It is really unique how much language experience we have among our student population,” Parker said.
A significant portion of this diversity can be attributed to proselytizing missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Over 60% of students speak a second language and 121 languages are spoken on campus, according to BYU’s website.
Parker said professors at other universities are astounded when he tells them about the depth and breadth of his students’ language experience.
“In a class of 25 undergrad sophomore-level students, they have a collective language background of, like, 20 languages,” he said.
This level of language proficiency is evident in LSS meetings. Torruella and Christensen said they recently created a Wheel of Fortune game using the International Phonetic Alphabet.
At another meeting, club members had 45 minutes to make up a language and translate the verse and chorus of “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran into their conlang.
Beyond the cultivation of cultural understanding and rigorous thinking patterns, Torruella said the linguistics program is a “safe space to geek.”
Christensen said the value of studying and speaking other languages cannot be overstated.
“A person’s language and their identity are so closely knit, that if you don’t understand their speaking, you won’t understand their identity fully,” he said. “It’s a window into other identities and other cultures.”