What Do Linguists Do?

K. T.   Fri Oct 26, 2007 2:23 am GMT
A few years ago a lady (I want to say "girl") with a Masters in linguistics came to our school. Her area of specialty was French, but she couldn't speak French. She was pleasant enough, but she wasn't hired. Although I was in on the interview, I didn't make the decision NOT to hire her.

I was a little surprised that anyone would bother to learn so much about a language and not learn to speak it. I don't think that she was being modest. I have a hard time understanding what exactly she KNEW about French. She came to teach English, btw.

My image of linguists comes from certain characters in books by John Irving. His books are full of references to Germanic languages. Travis reminds me of this kind of linguist. ( Well, two of his books had German as a common denominator.) It makes me think Irving also had a similar interest.

Any comments from people who received degrees in linguistics or current students?
mac   Fri Oct 26, 2007 4:00 am GMT
I met someone recently who told me that she had a degree in Linguistics. I asked what foreign language she studied and to my surprise she said "none", but that she should have. I thought a foreign language would necessary for something like linguistics.

Anyway, I don't know what they study or do either. What is the difference between studying linguists and studying the any language in depth (grammar, vocab, history)?
Calliope   Fri Oct 26, 2007 6:28 am GMT
"I thought a foreign language would necessary for something like linguistics."

She might have studied the linguistic particularities of her own language.

I think it is theoretically possible to study the system of a language without really learning the language itself, but I'm pretty sure that a linguist who actually knows the language as well, will end up being a better linguist (easier to notice patterns and make the pieces fall into place).
greg   Fri Oct 26, 2007 7:51 am GMT
En théorie il n'est point besoin de maîtriser une langue autre que son idiome maternel pour être linguiste. En théorie seulement. Dans la pratique, la maîtrise ou la connaissance de langues étrangères est un atout considérable pour prendre du recul sur sa propre langue ou approfondir certains sujet.

Nombre de spécialistes anglophones (bilingues) du moyen-anglais ont stigmatisé le monolinguisme de certains anglologues et mis en évidence leur capacité à générer des contresens effarants sur l'anglais médiéval postérieur à 1066 en raison de leur méconnaissance totale de l'ancien français.
Milton   Fri Oct 26, 2007 2:45 pm GMT
Linguist and polyglot is not the same thing.
Guest   Fri Oct 26, 2007 3:00 pm GMT
a romanist is an expert in romance languages
A germanist is an expert in germanic languages
A slavist is an expert in slavonic languages
Generally these scholars should know all the languages and the main dialects of each branch of languages
K. T.   Fri Oct 26, 2007 10:48 pm GMT
I can understand how a monolingual linguist who worked with stroke patients (CVA) might use their knowledge, but how is this kind of linguist different from a speech therapist?
K. T.   Sat Oct 27, 2007 2:41 am GMT

Type in the address above to see what linguists do?
Xie   Sat Oct 27, 2007 4:28 am GMT
>>Any comments from people who received degrees in linguistics or current students?

I am taking a 1001 course now. People just start from scratch... I know only a few people who take the same course, and it seems that only very diligent guys would go further to take examples from Japanese/Spanish/German to support their arguments in our first assignments. On the contrary, complete beginners of both university studies and linguistics would naturally only be writing something about English only, not even being able to talk about Chinese things (for it can be difficult to put in paper, though we are all native speakers).

Linguistics, in the local context, doesn't involve learning a language whatsoever. Among the very few linguistics programs, only one is an established major which DOES require students to learn a third language. But I don't think students of that major can really use that "third" language to study linguistics, given its limited contact hours...and learning resources are scarce. I won't expect really many linguistics students here to devote their mere three years of study on both linguistics and the next foreign language.

I'm talking about Hong Kong students. 99.9% of them speak Cantonese natively, know Mandarin and English quite well (Mandarin being the better one, but with a worse accent), and that's all. They don't learn Spanish/French in high school like the Americans, nor do they learn French/Latin like the Germans in Gymnasiums. I myself don't even know how to read classical Chinese without the help of annotations.

So, the main problem is: first, as ESL learners, many of us can't even utilize our materials, books, journals, etc, in English totally, not to say to learn a second foreign (country) language for the purpose of linguistics study, where one has to read very advanced academic publications. I don't believe this can be made possible through taking an extra, language major (particularly German/French) for such an aim.
Xie   Sat Oct 27, 2007 4:35 am GMT
>>Linguist and polyglot is not the same thing.

Indeed, studying linguistics now, like in Hong Kong, is possible even if you are an monolingual Anglophone. Only English is necessary because all the research here is conducted in English.

As I can observe, my lecturers do speak other languages, too, but not to the extent that they can claim at least advanced, functional fluency.

I'm heavily biased: one of them, who study African languages and some languages in China (but not Chinese), said honestly that he knew no French and German (except just some words). I suspect that his scope of study would be quite limited, since I believe not ALL linguistics literature is available in English. And naturally, if you go for field trips like in China, I don't think it's easy to get by with one language (English) only.
Guest   Sat Oct 27, 2007 11:45 am GMT
"Definitely not true. It's quite possible to study these families without speaking any of the languages (though not very common). If you take a look at the Wikipedia page, you'll see that there are a couple dozen Romance languages; asking someone to be familiar with all of them is ridiculous"

Probably in Canada or in the Usa, but I had the opportunity to read lots of interesting books of german and italian romanists (professors at the main European universities) who can speak French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Romanian and Sardinian. Besides, they have a good knowledge of Latin, Greek and Sanskrit.
furrykef   Sat Oct 27, 2007 3:24 pm GMT
<< French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Romanian and Sardinian >>

Josh said "a couple dozen". That's not a couple dozen. I do think anybody studying the Romance languages as a whole should have familiarity with Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and possibly Romanian, as well as a few of the more minor languages like Catalan. "Familiarity" doesn't necessarily mean actually speaking, though. For instance, I'm aware of some of the basic grammatical and phonological features of French that are distinct from those of Spanish, but I don't actually speak any French. For instance, I know that syllables beginning with "s" and another consonant in Latin, such as "statum", usually (always?) have their consonant cluster intact in Italian (stato), but Spanish must add an "e" before such clusters (estado), and French usually (always?) also adds the "e" but then deletes the "s" (état).

- Kef