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.


Oh, you’re a linguist – how many languages do you speak?

I understand why you may be interested in this question. I know linguists who do speak many languages, but most of us usually don’t, and it’s definitely not unusual to find linguists who can only speak one language (and still be perfectly and totally awesome at their job). Hang on, how can that be? 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. So big that it would be impossible for me, for example, to know all there is to know about language. As in other fields, 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).

Some linguists can even 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. But you may also find that some linguists can be somewhat reluctant to say just how many languages they speak exactly – I know I am! If you ask a linguist how many languages they speak, you may end up getting more than you bargained for. The linguist may start 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.

You’re not a native speaker of English… but you lecture in English linguistics?

Yes, indeed. This state of affairs may be more common than you think. How come? First of all, as I wrote above, linguists don’t teach other people how to speak a certain language (language teachers do that). The point of most linguists’ work is to ultimately comprehend how (a) language works: what are the rules of (the) language? What sort of variation do we find in (the) language? What are the functions of this variation? And so and so on. You can engage with these questions without actually being able to speak the language that’s being discussed. For example, I’ve attended talks, in English, on languages I’d never even heard of before, and yet I could follow what property of the language was being researched by the presenters, why, and what the findings were.

But you could also think of this: have you experienced being intrigued by a foreign language? In a way that you haven’t been about your own mother tongue? If you answered yes, then it probably won’t be too surprising to find that there are non-native speakers of languages who know much more about the structure of these languages than the native speakers. For instance, because I had to learn English as a foreign language and because I’ve always found it fascinating to think about how it’s structured, I’ve come to know a fair bit about it. On the other hand, I haven’t devoted the same amount of energy to my mother tongue (which I’ve always been able to use to my content as far as my memory reaches). So I’d actually do a very bad job trying to explain how many things work in my own mother tongue, while I’d give you a snappy answer for many of the properties of English (or snappier, at least).

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. 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 perpetrator, we can compare it 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; think of Siri) 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!

And yes, if you want to teach a language, you’d better understand how it works. And figuring that out is one of the linguist’s tasks.

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. You think it’s quite a mouthful? Well, however cumbersome it may seem, it is a name of one of my disciplines… By speaking to non-linguists, I’ve realised that this term can be somewhat opaque. 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 how and why they 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 other than age 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.


You’re a linguist! Cool, I’m fascinated with word X!

I always feel bad for potentially disappointing the person who says that. I can see there’s a language related phenomenon they are very excited about, related to words (=the lexicon), and I also feel that they expect me to provide them with some wise insights into that specific lexical phenomenon. As I said though, my area of expertise doesn’t happen to be about the lexicon – there is a lot of different aspects of language(s) to study, and it’s impossible for me to know everything there is to know even about a single language. Relatedly, even if I did focus primarily on the lexicon (so words rather than word order or sounds, for instance), that will not guarantee that I’ll be familiar with every single word one could possibly think of and ask about…

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