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Some misconceptions around applied linguistics
The fields of linguistics and applied linguistics are not well understood and there are numerous misconceptions surrounding the terms. A common response to someone who says they are a linguist or an ‘applied linguist’ is ‘how many languages do you speak?’ or ‘I’ve never been very good at grammar’. Here we will try to remove some of the misconceptions about what linguistics is.
What linguistics is not:
It is not about speaking many different languages
Linguistics is not about learning as many languages as possible, although many linguists do speak other languages because of a fascination with language or to get a better understanding of how languages work in general.
The name for a person who can speak many languages is a ‘polyglot’, not a ‘linguist’. Asking a linguist how many languages they speak is like asking a doctor how many diseases they have had. Linguists study languages (and language). They look at languages as data and learn to recognize and analyse patterns and differences within and between languages, just as doctors learn to recognize and analyse signs and symptoms of diseases.
It is not about knowing everything about language
Like many professionals, such as scientists, doctors or engineers, linguists can specialise in one of many areas, such as grammar, phonology or semantics. However, the study of language is a massive field and although a linguist may have a general knowledge of many areas of language, they cannot be expected to know everything.
It is not about telling people how to speak or write language correctly
It is often assumed that linguists will settle discussions about what is ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ in language (eg should the ‘t’ be pronounced in ‘often’; do you say ‘between you and me’ or ‘between you and I’). However, linguists describe rather than prescribe – they analyse what people do with language not what they should do. A linguist may describe what is appropriate in standard language in a formal context but their interest is in understanding how language is used in different situations and by different people, and how languages change and evolve, rather than prescribing what should be done. So a linguist might ask, for instance, ‘Which speakers (what ages, which genders, which regions, etc.) prefer ‘between you and I’, and which prefer ‘between you and me’? And in what social situations and in what types of sentences is one of these patterns preferred over the other?
It is not only for academics
Linguistics is an academic discipline and many linguists teach and research at universities, but they can also work in a wide range of other fields.
Linguists can work in industry, for example working on speech recognition software or natural language processing or as translators or interpreters for multinational companies. Many work in education, for example as a curriculum planner or as a teacher of English as a second language. Some linguists work in government, for example advising on language policy and planning, or in publishing, writing or editing textbooks. And some even end up working in the entertainment industry, as a voice coach for actors and presenters.
A knowledge of linguistics can also be useful for many other careers, such as journalism, publicity and advertising or any other area where language is important.
It is not just about grammar
Although grammar is a key part of language, it is only one part among many. The main components of linguistic enquiry are explained in the next section.
Here are a couple of examples of well-known phrases which some would consider are ‘not grammatically correct’.
‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ (Rolling Stones song title)
‘To boldly go where no man has gone before’ (Star Trek, 1960s US TV series)
Do you think they are ungrammatical’ and if so, why? Do you think they are ‘acceptable’? Share your ideas in the comments area.
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