Understanding Why Linguistics is Misunderstood

This post is written by guest blogger Patrick Goodridge a linguist, language teacher, and writer based in Philadelphia, PA. Read more about Patrick below or on the Career Linguist guest bloggers page.

Linguistics is the scientific study of language, though many who have heard of linguistics usually underestimate just how scientific it is. Those many are also sometimes unsure of what it is.

This is despite the advent of linguistic-based technology like Dragon (speech recognition), Google Translate (online machine translation), and now “smart speaker” devices like Amazon Echo. Even though the general populace uses these products regularly and with sincere fascination, the interest consumers have in these advances doesn’t extend to the field that originated them.

For instance, when I tell people that I study linguistics, they usually say something like “That’s interesting, but…what exactly is linguistics, anyway?” I get the question often enough that I’ve even begun to couple my response with a definition: “I study linguistics, the science of language!” Skeptics will greet my answer with “Sooo what do you want to do with that?”, a question that can be uncomfortable and will seem painfully familiar to students in the humanities.

For young linguists, myself included, this lack of widespread understanding can be initially confusing and frustrating. In the past, I would even become somewhat offended by what I perceived as ignorance toward a field meaningful to me. When questioned about my interests or motives regarding linguistics, I’d launch straight into some pompous speech expounding the diversity in job offers, everywhere from Washington to Silicon Valley, that I’ve received because of my understanding of language and communication. The disconnect between fact and myth about the role of linguistics in the world seemed irreconcilable. How could (nearly) every human on this planet use language and yet be so oblivious to its study?

Truthfully, however, such a radical response was really a defense. It was a defense against feeling misunderstood, against feeling undervalued by society, and against the inevitable responsibility of defining for myself what linguistics means to me. But it is our task as scholars and professionals, not the task of everyone else, to define what it is the field means to us, and how we believe its principles can be best applied to the world.

Though this task is different for all of us, whether we work in educational, theoretical, or historical linguistics,  we can nonetheless support one another. Some of us see our gifts as relevant to national defense, intercultural harmony, or diplomacy. Others see their gifts as relevant to technology, industry, and education, or to the crossroads of the three. For others, the goal is simply an understanding of language for the sake of knowledge itself. Those in this group seek to provide linguistic insight to others, whether that be deep insight provided to a graduate advisee under their tutelage, or broader insight to an undergraduate business major taking LING 101 to fulfill a science credit.

Such roles are meaningful to many in academia, and stimulating linguistic coursework in universities large and small will continue to be a vital part of informing the world about our field. Not all of us can teach, however, and so it will be essential for the rest of us to blaze our own trails in whatever area of technology, business, media, or government we feel language can most strongly impact.

I no longer resent others for not understanding linguistics or even for outright criticizing it as a choice of study. Instead, I realize that what makes the field valuable is not how well others understand it, but how well they understand what it can do for them. As a result, our goal should ultimately not be to make linguistics itself understood, but rather to make understood what exactly it is capable of. It can transform technology like it has in Google Translate’s new machine learning system. It can make learning the world’s most popular languages not only easier, but more enjoyable. It can even help us better understand our minds and, as a result, ourselves. The potentials are endless, as are your opportunities to make them a reality, and perhaps also to make linguistics better understood in the process.

Much thanks to Patrick for this tremendous post!!

imagePatrick Goodridge a linguist, language teacher, and writer based in Philadelphia, PA. He will earn his BA in Linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania this May, and hopes to enter an MA program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies thereafter. He also works as a linguistic adviser for 3ears.com, a new Russian language learning site  You can reach him at pgoodr@sas.upenn.edu or find links to his other work on LinkedIn.

Want to meet the other guest bloggers? Have thoughts that you would like to share? Thinking of becoming a guest blogger yourself?  Contact Career Linguist.


%d bloggers like this: