Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

So, I recently got an email from a reader (which I’ve edited into a single question for today’s post):

I’m currently in grade 11, and am trying to decide what I want to do with my life as far as education and jobs go. I absolutely adore writing, and it is certainly my dream career. However, I’d be fooling myself if I believed that I could rely on that as a sturdy job. So instead, for the time being, I will continue to write as a hobby.

I was reading a (fictional) book a little while ago, and one of the characters was someone who had devoted their life to living with the Navajo and learning their language and customs. That sparked some interest, and I began to look up things such as Global Studies. While I was searching, I came across Linguistics. So, here’s my question:

What exactly do you do? Sure, I’ve looked it up online. When I was doing that, I found basic definitions and found your site. When reading some of the things on there, I found a few very interesting and would love to hear your explanation of what linguistics is, if you wouldn’t mind taking the time to describe it. I think that as I look into it more, linguistics is one of those things that will become increasingly interesting to me.

This is an excellent question! Linguistics is one of those fields that most people have heard of, yet few can explain what it actually IS.

What don’t linguists do?

There are two really popular misconceptions about what linguists do which we should address first.

To start, linguists aren’t translators. Although there are many linguists who actually look into translation theory as a part of their research, that’s not what we are.

The other common misconception is that linguists sit around all day learning lots of different languages. This misconception leads people to, upon first meeting, immediately ask any linguist “How many languages do you speak?” This question is discussed extensively here, but in short, there’s more linguistics than speaking lots of languages.

Of course, there are many linguists who do part of their work by learning many languages, and it’s rare to find a linguist who speaks only his or her native language, one can be a very competent linguist and still spend most of their career working only with one or two languages. This is especially true in the realm of computational linguistics, where the problem isn’t so much the difference between languages, but getting a computer to understand human language at all.

What do linguists do?

This is actually really complicated question, but few people outside of the field know that. Linguistics is a very big field, with lots of different people doing lots of different things, because Language (with a big L, the whole idea of it) is wonderfully complicated with lots to study and research. So, I’m a linguist, yet I know people who are equally linguists who do things entirely different from what I do.

That said, we all have one thing in common: no matter what speciality or research area you look at, all linguists are trying to find and understand patterns in Language.

That sounds really abstract, but it seems to be the best common thread tying together all of the various sub-disciplines within the field.

  • Field linguists doing langauge documentation may be looking for patterns which help them understand and then write a grammar for a language that nobody has ever described.

  • Academic linguists are searching for patterns in whatever part of Language they feel is most interesting, and then generating models and theories based on those patterns.

  • People doing natural language processing are looking for specific patterns in text that have specific meanings, so that they can then teach a computer to find those patterns without human help. Often, the first step in this process is to find patterns of meaning and then annotate a text with those patterns so that a computer can use them. (Incidentally, for the last few years, I’ve been getting paid to generate these types of annotation schemas for medical records, so that’s one very concrete thing that a linguist does.)

  • People doing computer speech recognition (or studying human speech perception, like me) are trying to find the acoustical patterns which correspond to the sounds and words that somebody is saying, and people working on production are trying to find the patterns of mouth motion that correspond to certain sounds.

  • People in applied linguistics are often trying to find patterns in language and language learning that they use to improve the teaching of foreign languages.

… and the list goes on! There are thousands of tasks that a linguist might be suited for, because Language is really complex, and we interact with language in so many different ways on a regular basis.

I wish I could give you are really concrete answer, a list of 20 things that linguists do, and be done with it. But, much like asking what doctors do, what lawyers do, or even what you can use a rope for, there are thousands of possible answers, only loosely tied together.

Ultimately, though, linguists find patterns in Language. That’s what we’re trained to do, and, for most of us, that’s what we love doing. Every different linguist might find a different set of patterns that they are interested in, or might go about looking for them in a different way, but that’s what unites us all.

And the most beautiful part of it all is that there are plenty of patterns left for you in your future linguistic career.

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