So you’re a linguist…

“…how many languages do you speak?”

Every linguist on the planet knows and dreads this question, known simply as The Question™. The fact that it’s the first question most people ask when hearing of a linguist’s occupation certainly doesn’t help.

Right now you’re probably thinking “Give me a break, Riccardo. It’s quite a natural question to ask when you learn someone works with languages, isn’t it?”

Well, yes. Yes it is a very natural question. The problem is that it springs from a very common misunderstanding of a linguist’s job, and, to make things worse, it’s one of the most difficult questions to answer for a linguist.

Let me explain in a bit more detail what I mean.

Dammit Jim, I’m a linguist, not a linguist!

One of the reasons The Question™ is so popular amongst laypeople is semantic ambiguity. To our eternal annoyance as academic linguists, the word “linguist” has two different meanings in the English language. The meaning we use on this blog, and the one most people who call themselves “linguists” intend, is “a person engaged in the academic study of human language”. As you’ve probably gathered if you read our blog, this doesn’t necessarily involve the study of any particular language: while there are many linguists which specialise in one language only, many (perhaps even most) specialise in linguistic branches or whole families, and some specialise in particular fields of linguistics, like phonetics or semantics, and work with multiple completely unrelated languages.

Crucially, the job of an academic linguist doesn’t involve learning any of the languages we study, a point which I’ll talk about in more detail in the next section.

Unfortunately, this first meaning of the word “linguist” is not the one the public knows best. Not by a long shot.

The second meaning of “linguist” comes from military jargon, and it’s the one most familiar to laypeople due to its being spread far and wide by films, TV series, books and other popular entertainment media. In the military, a “linguist” is the person tasked with learning the language of the locals during a foreign campaign, with the goal of helping his fellow soldiers interact with them. In short, they’re what in any other field would be called an interpreter. Why the military had to go and rain on our lovely linguistic parade by stealing our name instead of using the proper name for what they do is a mystery, but they’re probably snickering about it as we speak. Regrettably, due to the greater popularity of films and stories set in a military/combative milieu, as opposed to the far superior and more engaging world of academics, with its nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat deadlines and paper-writing all-nighters, the second meaning of the word “linguist” has been cemented in the popular imagination as the primary one, and the rest is history.

It certainly doesn’t help that Hollywood likes to portray their “linguists” as knowing every single language they come into contact with, which has gone a long way towards making The Question™ as popular as it is.

Knowledge is relative, and numbers even more so

If our problem with The Question™ were only a matter of misunderstanding of our job description, it would be no big deal. We’d just list out all the languages we speak and then explain what a linguist actually is to whoever is asking. Problem is, while for a wuggle (non-linguist) listing the languages they know is an easy task, for a linguist it’s absurdly difficult. If you’ve ever exposed a linguist to The Question™, you’ve probably already seen the symptoms of ALLA (Acute Language Listing Anxiety): panicking, profuse sweating, stammering, making of excuses, epistemological asides (“Well, it depends on what you mean by know…”), and existential dread about the possibility of The Followup™ (“So you speak X? Say something in X!”).

What is the reason for this affliction? Well, it all comes down to what I said in the previous section: a linguist might very well study a language, but they are by no means expected to speak it. This gives rise to the apparent paradox of a linguist knowing the grammar of some language extremely well, while not being able to have anything more than the most basic of conversations in it, if even that. Some linguists manage to muscle through the pragmatics of The Question™ and only list the languages they speak fluently (which is what most people are asking, really), but many get stumped by it, because what a linguist means by “knowing a language” is very different from what a wuggle intends.

For example, by a linguist’s conception of “knowing”, I could be said to “know” a couple dozen languages. But before you go all wide-eyed with awe at my intellectual might, know that of those couple dozen I can be said to really speak only five or six. And of those five or six, I’m only really fluent in two, with a decent degree of fluency in a third. To make matters even worse, even the meaning of speaking is vague for a linguist: does “speaking” a language mean I can hold my own in basic conversation, or does it mean I can read a newspaper? Or a novel? Or a treatise on quantum physics?

You see, from a linguistic point of view, “speaking” a language isn’t a binary question: fluency is a spectrum. I can order stuff in a restaurant in German and read some basic texts, but I would never be able to read a novel in it. Do I speak German? I’ve translated an entire comic from Finnish to English for fun with the help of a dictionary, but I wouldn’t be able to talk to a Finnish person in Finnish to save my life. Do I speak Finnish? As you can see, it’s extremely difficult for a linguist to accurately gauge what “speaking” or “knowing” a language actually entails, which is why it takes them an impressively long time to come up with a list, to the puzzlement of wuggles who could list the languages they speak in a heartbeat.

Conversation tactics for wuggles

So, what should you ask a linguist upon meeting them? Well, the safest question is probably a simple “what do you do?”

Us linguists, like most academics, like explaining our jobs very much, and we’d be very happy to have the opportunity to geek out about what we study with an interested person.

Be sure to know when to stop us, though, unless you want to be regaled with a half-hour lecture on the pragmatics of Mixtecan questions.

You’ve been warned.

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