"Oh, you're a linguist? How many languages do you speak?"
Whenever I talk about studying linguistics or being a linguist-in-training to somebody unfamiliar with Linguistics, I inevitably get asked how many languages I speak. This is a reasonable question, especially given that most people don’t know what it is that linguists do, but really, the number of languages we speak fluently isn’t really that relevant to what we actually do in linguistics.
There are people who hear “Linguist” and think “translator”. They assume (not unreasonably) that a linguist’s job is to learn as many languages as they can, then to use that knowledge to translate and decode new languages. There are linguists who work almost exclusively with their native languages and still have productive careers, and there are people who can fluently speak many languages, but aren’t really linguists. Much of what I do in my classes is studying grammar, sounds, and constructions in other languages, with the end goal of applying that knowledge elsewhere in other languages or theories. However, the goal of learning these other languages isn’t fluency, but familiarity.
Linguistics and the study of language, is, to a large extent, the study of patterns. When you sit down to describe a new language, you find patterns that explain how meaning is expressed, and then figure out the rules from those patterns. In linguistics classes, we study parts of languages not to be able to speak them, but to become familiar with the patterns and rules they use. Once I’ve become familiar enough with the patterns in the language, I can draw links to other lanugages and use that information as an analytical tool. Of course, it’s wonderful (and encouraged) to actually learn a language to fluency and to be able to speak it, but often, just knowing a few sentences or phenomena can be very helpful in studying other languages.
This all has really been driven home to me this semester. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently enrolled in a class called “Field Methods” where we (along with the professor) work with a speaker to describe certain aspects of the language and grammar. The professor is an incredibly experienced linguist, familiar with (and fluent in) many different languages. It seems, just from watching him work, that his biggest “Aha!” moments come when he matches what he’s hearing with another language or pattern that he’s familiar with. The pattern may not be identical to what he’s familiar with, but it’s similar enough to get the gears going.
Familiarity with other languages can also be helpful in teaching, based on my experience with my professors. English is a nice language, but it has its own specific way of doing things. You can’t discuss many aspects of sound, grammar and meaning if you limit yourself to one particular language of discussion. If a professor is familiar with other languages that do things differently, they can pull an example out of the air from a language they know to clarify something for a student. Even more importantly, they can link what they’re teaching to languages that they’re interested in, so that their passion can bleed through the subject matter into the students, and make even a lecture about word order interesting.
The more time I spend in this field, the more I understand that every language you study, however briefly, teaches you not just about that language, but about language in general. You can learn a great deal from being able to say “I saw the man make the arrows” in a language and nothing more. Even learning a few sentences and patterns from a dying language will teach you something, however minor, about language, the world, and human thought.
That wraps back to what I usually tell people how many languages I’ve had to learn to be a linguist. Those of us in Linguistics don’t study languages, we study Language. Although it’s wonderful to learn the languages you examine to fluency, it’s not required to do so to study the patterns therein.
That, or two. Sometimes, I just don’t want to get into it.
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