What skills are cultivated by studying Linguistics?

An  oldie but a goodie for the hazy days of summer!!!

In applying for jobs, it is all about skills.

  • Creating the job that you want means recognizing the skills that you possess and figuring out ways to use them in contexts that make you happy.
  • Getting the job that you want will be all about communicating this awareness (with enthusiasm) in texts like cover letters.

So what skills do we linguists have?

There are many skills that the study of linguistics cultivates, and the irony is that the longer you have been doing linguistics, the more natural each of these starts to become, and therefore, less visible.  Further, in the educational context, we can take our skills for granted because we are surrounded by people who share them, but the truth is that out there in the work world, a linguist’s way of listening is as rare as it is valuable.

We expect misunderstanding
In courses like Cross-Cultural Communication, we focus in on moments of miscommunication and misunderstanding, and not because we believe communication to be impossible, but instead to celebrate what an interactional achievement smooth communication actually is.  Adopting a stance of expecting misunderstanding informs our way of looking at interaction and our interactional behavior in many important ways.

First, it gives us a bit of critical distance from our language when we understand that miscommunication is not personal, it is not because we are ineffectual or owing to willful lack of effort or cooperation on the part of the other party.  This knowledge makes us value communication.  We know that it takes work to communicate, and we have patience for this work.  Additionally, we know how to talk about communication, so that when miscommunication does occur, not only are we more likely to recognize it, we know how to diagnose it, talk about it, unpack it – to arrive at a deeper understanding of it.  We rush in where others may fear to tread!

Expecting misunderstanding at the outset will lead you to work towards understanding (to invest in it).  We cultivate a certain comfort with misunderstanding which can help us get people through conflict, which is a rare skill indeed!

We are precise in our terminology
I am often accused of “being a linguist” in moments where I insist on clarity and precision in word choice, for example, questioning a characterization of something as “normal” or cuing into language that is particularly “othering” or unnecessarily alienating – in the style of “us” vs. “them”.   Such awareness may prevent miscommunication and it is also quite powerful because it helps me strive for clarity and precision and in turn push others to clarify their thinking and their writing.

We are not afraid of questions
In many workplace settings, questions are unconsciously avoided for many reasons. Questions are often seen as being the enemy to efficiency because they introduce complexity, they introduce ambiguity, but life is complex and ambiguous. Only by asking questions do we arrive at a closer understanding of the truth.

  • And so we ask “What does X mean?”
  • And we ask “Why?”

This exemplification of critical thinking is an application of our training.  We can complexify because we are not overwhelmed by ambiguities and myriad interpretations – because (conveniently enough) we are also trained in synthesis, analysis, & meaning-making!

We think in systems
Training in linguistics is training in making meaning, which enables us in any context to be better at systems thinking and to recognize overarching themes.  We are trained to find patterns in chaos and to make the invisible visible.  Some people describe this as connecting the dots, systems thinking, or making models, but ultimately, it comes down to the fact that most people are too busy being in the pattern to actually see the pattern – much less change it.  We can help!

We lead with listening
Because we look at communication with an eye to improving understanding and improving relationships, we listen for what people really care about.  We can take on the perspective of the other person in an interaction and we know how to peel back to get at underlying assumptions.  Additionally, because we are trained for listening to the nuances of the ways that people talk, we can use our listening to help us talk in ways that mirror and resemble those of the people we are talking to, which enables us to better hear and be heard.   This skill builds rapport.

Finally, we pick up on things.   We are sharp observers and this skill is marketable in any context!

In this post, I have discussed just a few skills that I see, and I hope that this has inspired your own thinking about your own skills.  Ping me back about the ones that most resonate and/or add ones that I have not mentioned!