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MIT Linguistics: Department of Linguistics & Philosophy

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Graduate Program

Program History

The Graduate Program in Linguistics at MIT was founded in 1961, and produced its first PhDs in 1965. Over the years, MIT graduates have taken up positions in many of the leading linguistics departments in the world and now provide much of the intellectual community that makes contemporary linguistics such a strong and lively branch of the cognitive sciences.

Initially housed within the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures, the Linguistics Program joined with the Philosophy Program in 1976 to form the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. The two sections of the department operate independent graduate programs, under the leadership of a common Head. The headship alternates between the two wings of the department.

Under the leadership of Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle in the 1960's and 1970's, the Linguistics Program at MIT rapidly acquired an international reputation as a leading center for research on formal models of human-language phonology, morphology and syntax, guided by the bold (and, at the time, novel) hypothesis that language should be studied using the intellectual tools of the natural sciences. Many of the most influential trends in the study of syntax and phonology had their origins in research conducted at MIT. In the 1980s, the program was broadened to include semantics. The study of syntax and semantics within a group sharing the same goals and methodology proved very fruitful. In the 1990's links with the Department of Brain and Cognitive Science were established to expand the range of research tools and methodologies available for the study of human language. Significant research efforts in language acquisition, sentence processing and neuro-imaging were launched. In the current decade the program has integrated research in experimental phonetics and computational modeling of language learning.

Research Objectives

A distinctive feature of the Linguistics Program at MIT has been its insistence on explicit theories of language formalized as grammatical rules and constraints. The concern for explicitness facilitates the comparison and evaluation of alternative models. Only after extensive parts of the grammars of different languages have been formulated is it sensible to ask questions concerning the ways in which languages differ—or the ways in which all languages are the same. Consequently, a large part of our effort is devoted to the study of linguistic detail (for example, the interpretation of English verb phrase ellipsis, the morpho-semantics of the Greek perfect, the syntax of multiple questions, prosodic phrasing in Korean, or the articulation of reduced vowels in English). We focus on phenomena that we believe will provide rich insights into the nature of language. Their discovery requires effort and persistence, and a certain measure of good luck. Our program has been noted for its psychological interpretation of linguistic theory. This view holds that humans have an innate language faculty in which the universal principles of human language are grounded. In learning their native language, children acquire specific rules that interact in complex ways; the entire system is learned rapidly and with little effort. The success of human language learners suggests that they rely on a highly restrictive set of principles that does not require (or permit) them to consider many alternatives in the analysis of a particular construction. Since there is no evidence that the underlying principles that define the class of possible rules and grammatical systems are learned, it is thought that these principles serve as the preconditions for language learning, forming part of the innate capacity of every normal child. Viewed in this light, the principles we are attempting to discover constitute part of the genetic endowment of all humans.

Graduate Student Research Life

Graduate student research is the central focus of the MIT Linguistics Program. The reputation of the program over the years is due in no small measure to the high quality of the graduate student research (particularly at the dissertation level) where many noteworthy discoveries have been made. We believe that these research efforts are most effectively enhanced by an atmosphere of cooperation rather than competition. Many of our research papers have joint or multiple authorship. Some of the best ideas stem from hallway or classroom discussions, or from appointments in faculty and student offices. MIT research in linguistics is a common and shared effort to unlock the secrets of language. The importance of graduate student research is reflected in the frequent citation of MIT dissertations in the professional literature, and in the success of the graduate students' own publishing endeavor, the MIT Working Papers in Linguistics (MITWPL). The proceeds of MITWPL publications help support student research activities, including conference travel and linguistic fieldwork. Graduate students take on considerable responsibility for the overall intellectual life of the department. Our Colloquium Series, which brings distinguished visitors to campus for talks and meetings with students, is administered by the graduate students as are the many reading and discussion groups such as Ling Lunch, Phonology Circle, LF Reading Group, Morph Beer and Brain and Language.

Employment Prospects

Academic jobs are difficult to obtain, with increasingly many applicants competing for a relatively small number of positions. Consequently, students cannot expect to move into an optimal job immediately upon completion of the Ph.D. program. Many of our graduates have taken up post-doctoral fellowships or one-year visiting positions before finding more permanent positions. Nonetheless, in recent years almost all of our graduates have found teaching or research posts. Recent graduates are employed in tenure-track and tenured positions at such North American universities as the University of Chicago, UC Santa Cruz, University of Connecticut, McGill, NYU, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Maryland, and the University of Pennsylvania (and in many other excellent departments as well). Others are working at major universities and research institutions in Europe, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.