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How Much Math Is Necessary to Study Linguistics?

Posted: Mon May 01, 2017 1:01 am UTC
by MathDoofus
I took a handful of linguistics classes in college, and I wish I would have known that a math/programming background was essentially a prerequisite. I remember something about the hierarchical complexity of languages that Chomsky created (or discovered, etc.). Did Chomsky have a math background? Is a math background necessary to study linguistics at the undergraduate level?

Re: How Much Math Is Necessary to Study Linguistics?

Posted: Mon May 01, 2017 4:15 am UTC
by ConMan
Linguistics has a lot of sub-fields. Some of them are more on the sociological side (like, say, sociolinguistics), where it's good to know a bit about statistics and how to interpret the results of a study. Some of them are embedded in hard science (like biolinguistics or phonology). An undergraduate course will tend to cover the fundamentals of the whole field, so it would probably be good to have at least some grounding in science and mathematics. And it definitely helps to have good analytical skills, which science degrees are supposed to be good at teaching you.

That said, you don't need to have an entire mathematics degree on the side. My wife majored in Japanese linguistics as a "mature student" (i.e. she started her degree in her mid-20s rather than straight out of secondary education), and she didn't do any maths after she finished high school, so while I helped her out with some of the more sciency parts of her courses she did just fine.

Re: How Much Math Is Necessary to Study Linguistics?

Posted: Mon May 01, 2017 1:15 pm UTC
by MathDoofus
ConMan wrote:Linguistics has a lot of sub-fields. Some of them are more on the sociological side (like, say, sociolinguistics), where it's good to know a bit about statistics and how to interpret the results of a study. Some of them are embedded in hard science (like biolinguistics or phonology). An undergraduate course will tend to cover the fundamentals of the whole field, so it would probably be good to have at least some grounding in science and mathematics. And it definitely helps to have good analytical skills, which science degrees are supposed to be good at teaching you.

That said, you don't need to have an entire mathematics degree on the side. My wife majored in Japanese linguistics as a "mature student" (i.e. she started her degree in her mid-20s rather than straight out of secondary education), and she didn't do any maths after she finished high school, so while I helped her out with some of the more sciency parts of her courses she did just fine.


That makes sense. For someone without a Math or CS background, what's the best way to pick up the background knowledge that's required to make sense of language hierarchies, theories of syntax, and the other areas within Linguistics that have a bunch of abstract symbols and/or symbol manipulation?

Re: How Much Math Is Necessary to Study Linguistics?

Posted: Mon May 01, 2017 11:17 pm UTC
by ConMan
I'm probably not in the best position to answer that, but I'll make some rough suggestions to get you started. In terms of topics, the two things that I think will cover a broad amount of ground and get you on the right track are statistics and logic. In terms of how to learn these things, if you want some directed study then I would suggest Khan Academy and Coursera. In particular:

  • Statistics and probability on Khan Academy, particularly "Displaying and describing data", "Designing studies" and everything from "Sampling distributions" onwards (although a lot of that will assume that you've covered the topics that I haven't listed, so really just work your way through it).
  • Introduction to Logic on Coursera. This one has a session starting in early July and runs for 10 weeks (it's essentially a university course run online, but you can enroll for free). It deals with mathematical logic, which may be useful in getting to grips with some of the symbolic manipulation that happens in topics like syntax and grammar.