For the non-linguist

Dear non-linguistic reader,

Here are some questions I get asked when interacting with non-linguists. I attempt to provide brief answers. In addition, I also list here a couple of frequent statements from non-linguists on which linguists tend to have a rather different take and explain why.

This is very much in progress – something I started working on on the 4th of August 2019 after travelling and speaking about what I do with a number of people.


You’re a linguist – so how many languages do you speak?

I understand why you may be interested in this question. I know linguists who do speak many languages (over 10), but most of us usually do about 3-4 (this is a very informal guesstimate based on my personal experience), and it’s definitely not unusual to find linguists who can only speak one language (and still be pretty awesome linguists). This is because the goal of linguists isn’t to learn as many languages as possible. What we aim to do instead is understand how languages work and how language works. In other words, how do we humans “do” language(s)? This is a very big question. All linguists have a specific expertise or areas of interest. One of mine is for example variation in sounds like /p/, /t/, and /k/, amongst others. I know, this gets very nerdy. But it does take a lot of time and energy to investigate even things to do with /p/, /t/, and /k/, and I’m pretty sure I won’t learn all I’d like to about these consonants within my lifespan! Understanding how we pronounce and hear sounds like /p/, /t/, and /k/ does fall within how humans do language(s). Take-home message: linguists can get a bit fed up being asked how many languages they speak, because that’s not what linguistics is about. On the other hand, I think it’s perfectly understandable why non-linguists would ask us this question. This way we at least get the chance to explain what it is that we do do and how cool linguistics can be.

On a related note, if you ask a linguist how many languages they speak, you may get more than what you bargained for. The linguist may engage with the question by engaging with how we define speaking exactly. Do we mean just the ability to communicate (somehow)? If so, is it just basic needs or also abstract ideas? In written form or also actual oral conversations? And so and so forth – you see where this is going.


What can you do with linguistics in real life?

Some people find it difficult to believe that anyone may be able to earn one’s living as a linguist. But we can. The most obvious path is to get a job at a university and teach about languages in a range of programmes (such as those aimed at future teachers of language X, but not necessarily so). Linguists who want to pursue this path in the job market often find it way easier to get employed in their field if they are prepared to move countries – these sorts of jobs are limited. But linguists can be employed in other ways too.

For instance, a linguist can conduct a forensic analysis and an analysis of authorship: how likely is it that the speaker in recording A is the same speaker as the one in recording B? If we have a recording of speech of a criminal, we can comparing to the speech of suspects and say how likely it is that these come from the same speaker. Similarly, if you wonder whether a certain play was written by Shakespeare or not, you can tap into this puzzle by doing a detailed linguistic analysis. And is a document a fake or is it genuine? That’s also where a linguistic analysis may come in handy.

As someone working with sounds, I immediately think of speech and recognition software (where you say things and a machine reacts) and text-to-speech software (where an automated voice reads text out loud). In order to develop this software, we need to understand how humans produce speech in quite a lot of detail. And that’s what linguists are good at! The same however applies to automatic translation software.

And yes, if you want to teach a language, you’d better understand how it works! And that’s exactly what linguists determine.

Linguists also typically have some general skills that can be used in jobs that don’t necessarily involve languages, such as those related to data processing, summarising, analysing, and editing.

And I’m sure my many colleagues would give you even more examples.


What’s language variation and change?

Language Variation and Change (LVC) is a field of linguistics. This happens to be my field, so by now I’ve realised that it’s actually a term that can be somewhat opaque to non-linguists. But you’ll see it’s actually fairly transparent after all. People interested in language variation and change aim to understand how and why languages vary and change. If you want a concrete example, then think of the language of your parents as opposed to yours: there is a lot of variation in language depending on our age/generation. Many people complain how the youngsters are ruining the language, which is indicative of language change in progress. And there are many more factors that can result in variation in language, including gender, sex, sexuality, style and formality, ethnicity, class, whether we like the person(s) we’re speaking with, our emotion, politeness, romantic intention, and so and so on.


What’s a phonetician?

Phoneticians are people who are interested in how people produce sounds when they speak. This can include a range of aspects of speech, such as vowels, consonants, voice quality, intonation, rhythm, and tempo. Often, phoneticians work with acoustic data (which is what you get if you have a CD with music for example – we just use some cool software to inspect this sort of data visually and otherwise). But we can also use what’s known as perceptual and articulatory evidence. Perceptual evidence relates to how people perceive sounds: for instance, when learning a foreign language, we may often not be able to perceive some new sounds that well. Articulatory evidence relates to what’s going on inside our body as we speak: does the tongue move up? do the vocal folds vibrate?


Why did you become a phonetician?

I’ve been fascinated by sounds for as long as I can remember. It made me extremely happy to listen to sounds I wasn’t familiar with. And I also associate different sounds of languages with different colours, and this also applies to voices and music, though to a much more limited extent. Look up synaesthesia if interested in more.


It’s horrible how the youngsters are ruining the language, isn’t it?

Answer here.

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