Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What Linguists Do

One of the most prototypical questions linguists get asked is, "How many languages do you speak?"

Linguists get asked this question so often because the number one misconception about linguists is that we sit around all day and learn new languages.  While linguists study language, we don't necessarily study languages.  How does that make sense?  Studying language means you're studying the system that allows humans to communicate--for spoken languages, this means you're studying how sounds are made, transmitted, and perceived; how sounds are put together and which sounds are meaningful; how words are built to create meaning; how words come together to form sentences; and so on.  For signed languages, you're studying how gestures are made and perceived; how the differing aspects of those gestures work together to create meaning; and so on.  For all types of language, you can study how societies create meaning, how our brains can handle language input and output, how language changes over time, how our language use reflects our identity, how we can acquire language, and more.  The important thing to remember is that you could feasibly study linguistics without ever once studying another language.  You could be a morphologist, studying how individual morphemes are put together to form meaningful words, without speaking any language but your native language because you can study the patterns found in the world's languages without speaking them.

Even though speaking another language is not necessary for being able to perform linguistic analyses, many linguistics programs require that their students take at least two years of a foreign language at the collegiate level (as does our minor here at SFA).  Learning another language opens your mind and helps you, as a student, get past thinking that all languages work like your native language.  Even if you never become fluent in that language you are studying, learning the new vocabulary and new grammatical structures of another language can open up doors for making connections in your linguistics courses that you would otherwise not be able to make.  A simple example is the History of the English Language course.  Students in that course who had studied other languages constantly found connections between that other language and the concepts being learned to study the history of our own language.  Students who studied Latin noticed that Old English had a rich case system like Latin; students of German noticed that the Old English vocabulary sounded more German-ish than English-ish; students of French noticed that Middle English gained familiar-sounding words after the Norman Conquest.

Another misconception about linguists that I have been facing lately is that linguists study grammar.  It is true that one area of linguistics is grammatical analysis; however, grammar in linguistics is not the grammar of middle school textbooks or college style guides.  In linguistics, we do not study things like punctuation placement, subject-verb agreement errors, or faulty parallelism unless we are looking at them in a wider context.  For instance, we might study punctuation placement in the terms of societal conventions used to standardize written language.  Or we might study so-called errors in language to better understand the different patterns available within a language for expressing the same idea and society's judgments on those patterns.  Linguistics, though, is so much more than grammar.  Some of us (like myself) rather enjoy grammar, but that doesn't mean that is all we do.  So if you take Structures of English at SFA, you will not once be tested on where commas should be placed within a sentence.

If you are interested in learning more about studying linguistics, the Linguistic Society of America has an online publication titled "Why Major in Linguistics?" that covers the basics of linguistic study and the possibilities for jobs as a linguistics student.  The link to this article is also in the LingLinks section in the sidebar of this blog, along with other valuable links to linguistic resources.  And, of course, linguists are happy to field questions about linguistics--if you're at SFA, feel free to stop by my office if you'd like to chat about just how fascinating studying linguistics is.

What misconceptions about linguistics have you heard?  Or, what questions do you have about what linguists actually study?

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