“What’s Linguistics?”

“What’s Linguistics?”
“How many languages do you speak?”
“A linguist?  Like C-3PO?” (the latest variant of this question that I heard recently)

If you have taken even a single course in linguistics, you have probably been asked questions like the above (and likely with some regularity).  The general lack of awareness about our field demonstrated by these questions can be very frustrating, and no doubt you recognize the heavy feeling that follows as you try to gauge how much you really want to “go there” with this person in your response.

A classmate of mine used to sometimes answer by saying something along the lines of “would you ask a physicist to define gravity!?!  Go get a book!”

….and I’m not even yet talking about the perennial favorite:” “What can you do with a Degree in Linguistics?”

A conversational opportunity
But I am an interactional sociolinguist, and that means that I see things in terms of interactions. And from where I sit, for those of us seeking to broaden the understanding of the range of contexts in which our skills may be applied, I can’t think of interactions more important for us to pay attention to than these invitations to talk more about our field.  When we see these questions as opening interactional opportunities, as opportunities to share ideas, as opportunities to share enthusiasm, we elevate our field in ways that benefit all of us.

We should expect misunderstanding (about Linguistics)
Among the skills cultivated by the study of linguistics is that of having a heightened awareness of communication, which involves the expectation of the possibility for misunderstanding.  We recognize the labor involved in the interactional achievement of intersubjectivity and thus have been trained to have patience for the careful attention sometimes required and the investment of time, space, energy and work that being understood and understanding can entail.  Bringing these skills then to an encounter with a potential ally in the career journey will mean being willing to seek to understand together how it is that our skills and training in linguistics might be useful to the person we are talking to.

Be prepared with an example
I argue that it is our responsibility to have some examples at the ready which demonstrate exactly how we might be useful professionally, displaying our disciplinary commitment to promoting more effective communication and to broadening understanding.

How can you share a little bit of something that you are interested in?  Maybe you can talk about something that you are working on and are currently thinking about.

Sample examples?
On this blog, I share stories of the professional paths of linguists, and organizations who hire linguists. I also share job postings and other resources for learning more about linguistics.  What resources do you have to share?  Join the conversation by tweeting @careerlinguist

You never know where this conversation might lead. At the very least, you will share ideas, invite curiosity, and perhaps even recruit allies for the career journey ahead!

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