Linguistics jobs – Interview with a Humanitarian Aid Worker



Welcome to another installment of our linguistics jobs series. Today’s chat is with Hugh, who I met in Poland quite a few years ago. We both ended up studying linguistics and he has also tried many times to teach me the art of doing cryptic crosswords. Hugh has recently returned from Jordan where he spent 2 and a half years with the
Norwegian Refugee Council, supporting their activities, which include helping refugees find and maintain shelter.  

What did you study at university?

actually started reading maths, but hated it. After two years, I
switched to linguistics because I enjoyed languages and didn’t want to
study any one language, which would have entailed having to read and
analyse literature (which I’m terrible at). So the second half of my
degree was a broad overview of linguistics areas, from semantics and
pragmatics through to morphology, phonology and phonetics. I had a much
better time studying something I could begin to understand. 

What is your job?

work in humanitarian emergencies, usually as part of a small team of
people who go to a country shortly after a disaster and set up
humanitarian assistance programmes. So far, I’ve spent a year in Haiti
after the earthquake in 2010, six months in Côte d’Ivoire during the
civil war in 2011, two years in Jordan supporting Syrian refugees, and
various shorter missions elsewhere. Exactly what I do varies from
country to country, but it’s all part of the same sort of activity.

have two specialisations within the humanitarian sector. The first is
shelter and housing programming, which begins with assessing the
situation and working out what people need in terms of housing (both for
immediate relief, and to support them to return to normal living
conditions). Based on this, we then order the necessary materials, and
recruit and train staff to be able to distribute them to those most in
need. I’m normally deployed to manage this process for a
non-governmental organisation.

The other
specialisation is gathering data and interpreting it. Humanitarian
organisations consistently need to monitor what they are doing to ensure
that the projects they are implementing are having the effects that
they intended, and match the needs and wishes of the people affected by a
conflict or a disaster. If we know what the consequences of our actions
are, including any unintended consequences, we can adjust to improve,
and collectively learn for the next time. I recruit, train and manage
staff to support this process. 

How does your linguistics training help you in your job?

education in general, but specifically linguistics, taught me how to
think critically. It’s something I have to remind myself of frequently,
but it’s such an important skill. I’m not as good at it as I should be,
but I am able to reflect back on what I am doing and consider if it is
the approach to doing something, if a project is having some other
unintended consequence, might there be a better way to achieve the same

More concretely, linguistics has helped
me in several ways. It gave me an introduction to social sciences,
which is the foundation of the data gathering and analysis work I do.
Coming at this strictly from a stats background would have been a
challenge, because none of the data quite fit the idealised mathematical
world I was initially trained in.

It’s also
helped with learning bits of new languages, and with working in a highly
multicultural environments, for I’m able to understand why people
don’t understand each other. One example is hedging in English – I often
have to rephrase something in my head to avoid hedging as much as I
naturally do to ensure others who are not native English speakers hear
the same as what I mean.

Unfortunately, my phonetics training still hasn’t helped me pronounce the /q/ in Arabic.  

Do you gave any advice do you wish someone had given to you about linguistics/careers/university?

never knew what I wanted to do. I had clear ideas of jobs I didn’t want
(banking, accountancy, actuary – all the jobs that a maths degree leads
to). So I picked a subject to study that interested me. I’ve taken two
or three significant side-steps in my career since leaving university.
Had I chosen a different degree, I may well have ended up at the same
place, or taken a different path.

If you have a
clear idea of what you want to do, or where you want to go, great. If
you don’t yet, then it’s nothing to worry about.  


Interview with a journalist

Interview with a data analyst

Interview with an interpreter

Interview with a high school teacher

If you studied linguistics, went on to get a cool job and want to talk about it, get in touch

It’s definitely worth noting that there are many jobs that don’t have a single, inevitable path leading to them, especially since the ones that do tend to be more obvious in the education system. 

People often ask me what you can do with a linguistics degree, and instead of the laundry list of possible jobs I usually rattle off, I may begin pointing them to this interview series! 

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