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Ask the readers: What is a linguist?

| 141 comments | Category: off topic

This is something that has been bothering me for some time, so after giving my thoughts on it, I’d love to hear yours.

What do you understand it as meaning if someone says that they are a “linguist”?

As far as I’m concerned, a linguist is someone who studies linguistics.

Linguistics can be a fascinating field that covers anything from phonetics of dead languages to the origin of languages, how languages evolve with time, deconstructing dialects, how languages affect how we think, computer programming and speech recognition, etymologies, syntax, comparative grammar, neurology, psychology, to much much more.

Languages are a part of humanity and the study of these languages is an important aspect of science itself. Some of the research may be immediately practical and some may be mostly for the purposes of expanding our understanding of the world and our place in it.

I hope this description fits, so correct me if I’m wrong because I’m not a linguist. I have a degree in electronic engineering (and apply engineering mentality to language learning).

For many people ‘linguist’ is a synonym of polyglot – someone who speaks multiple languages (or occasionally a lexiphile - someone who loves words). I fundamentally disagree with this and the use of the word in this context feels terribly wrong to me. The only reason I feel this happens so widely is because polyglot is (as yet) not such a common word in English, so we’ll use the closest thing we’ve got.

Luckily this is changing – one minor victory I can claim is that a lot of people are at least starting to use it after coming across this blog! You’ll notice I like to refer to myself as Benny the Irish polyglot and certainly not Benny the Irish linguist (unless I’m joking).

To me linguist is analogous with scientist, the -ist being “one who studies”. But to others, it’s analogous with capitalist, optimist and other words that just describe someone who has something to do with the base word. Dictionaries, which define what the masses understand in word meanings confirm by saying it’s a Person skilled in foreign languages.

Non-polyglot linguists

I have made it clear that some linguists really piss me off in spreading discouraging and false claims about language learning, from not following the scientific approach and instead extrapolating data in inefficient and limiting contexts (especially when that data disagrees with so many people disproving it). The problem is that many linguists (people with academic and professional experience in studying and working with languages and linguistics) do not speak foreign languages so when they talk about second language learning they are looking at impersonal data with no personal experience.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but when you start making questionable claims then this is something I really have to stand up against.

A reader once said that a (second language acquisition) linguist vs a polyglot is alike a sports journalist vs an athlete. One will have access to all the facts, and research and studied the history of the sport, and will have a doctorate and will nitpick every single move the player makes in the slow motion replay. But at the end of the day, you will always ask the athlete to train you and not the journalist if you want to become an athlete yourself.

Experience is way more important for giving relevant advice.

But actually, the vast majority of linguists don’t even discuss or research second language acquisition – I’ve hung out with linguists many times and really enjoy their company. Forgetting about my language learning missions, I have a lot in common with them from purely enjoying the pursuit of new and interesting knowledge.

Non-linguist polyglots

But I won’t delude myself into thinking that I’m on the same level of linguists when it comes to understanding how languages and linguistics work.

Most polyglots I’ve met (and there are a lot - over half of the population of the entire planet speaks more than one language! Make sure to think outside of the anglophone world when wondering how amazing it is to speak a second language) don’t know what grammatical terminology means, or understand terms like “Indo European”, or would know whether some word they use comes from Greek or Latin.

I know a little of that stuff, but I’m not a linguist. It would be misleading of me to say I’m one. Despite what I’ve said above about experience, some people really do value a PhD more.

And this is why I get equally annoyed by polyglots who call themselves linguists. Because of the ambiguity involved in the word, a lot of people may think that they do indeed have university credentials and put more weight on their advice because of it. I’ll always make it clear on this blog that what I have to say comes from experience and speaking to many many language learners, and not from large scale and well budgetted research.

I feel like I have to protect the word linguist for the linguists’ sake. I’d be equally annoyed by someone wrongly claiming to be an engineer (since I’ve been out of the game so long, I wouldn’t even claim to be one myself any more). You can’t say you’re a scientist just by wearing a labcoat, and you can’t say you’re a linguist just because you speak multiple languages. A polyglot is no more a linguist than he is an astronaut.

You can of course be both a linguist and a polyglot, but one does not lead to the other in both cases.

——-

So what do you think? Am I alone in thinking I should correct people when they call me a linguist? Should second language acquisition linguists swallow their pride and ask for advice from people with experience even if they have no diplomas on their wall? Should polyglots stop pretending to be linguists? Should people stop using one word to cover everything to do with languages and be more specific? Or am I making a mountain out of a molehill?

Let me  know in the comments!

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  • http://twitter.com/stilvoid stilvoid

    I for one whole-heartedly agree. Having attained a degree in linguistics, there’s nothing more annoying than, when it comes up in conversation, being asked “oh, so what languages do you speak?”

    Linguistics – for me at any rate ;) – is the study of how language in general works though that obviously comes from studying examples of language.

    I wonder if astrophysicists get asked how many stars they own.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      “I wonder if astrophysicists get asked how many stars they own” – hahaha well said :D
      Yes, I’d imagine confusion about the term would lead to such questions. It’s why I’m hoping “polyglot” will become more better known and linguist will definitely mean what it should.

  • Anonymous

    Yep! Benny, you are the antithesis of a linguist- their worst nightmare! You learn languages quickly and relatively easily without studying arcane minutiae or knowing the word for “shoelace”. It’s one thing to know how languages work, it’s another thing entirely to know how to work languages. Your languages aren’t confined to an ivory tower somewhere. Your languages live. Your advice has helped inspire many people to stop “studying” and start speaking.  You can study a thouand books, courses and videos on how to  parallel park but nothing substitutes for actually doing parallel parking. At some point you have to start driving the language. To me, that’s the difference  between what you do and a “linguist”.  A linguist will study a language forever and may know all about declensions, tenses, adverbial phrases, etc. but not how to order breakfast in  São Paulo.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      “It’s one thing to know how languages work, it’s another thing to know how to work languages” Loved this quote!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      “It’s one thing to know how languages work, it’s another thing to know how to work languages” Loved this quote!

      • Lissette Baptista

        There is no better way to put it! :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      “It’s one thing to know how languages work, it’s another thing to know how to work languages” Loved this quote!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      “It’s one thing to know how languages work, it’s another thing to know how to work languages” Loved this quote!

    • http://tumblr.kiefte.eu/ Joop Kiefte

      Nice one about the breakfast in São Paulo. First time in São Paulo with my then-girlfriend (now wife) my command of the language was really poor, yet I managed to get us food :). She (Brazilian) didn’t hesitate to send me to do that part!

    • http://www.RoadToEpic.com Adam Wik

      Now, not all linguists are completely clueless about language acquisition don’t stereotype too much. There are plenty of us linguists who have learned one or more languages to fluency past adulthood. That being said, I agree there are plenty out there like you describe :-p.

      You can have an interest in how languages work, or you can have an interest in speaking languages (for mostly cultural/interpersonal reasons like Benny or whatever) or you can have both.

  • giuls

    Agreed 100%. In my native language (Italian) there’s also a clear distinction between “polyglot” and “linguist”, and I’ve always assumed that the same difference existed in English.
    G.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Precisely, but it’s because polyglot is a much better known word in Latin languages. You’ll find most English speakers have never heard it before, so the clear separation you have in Italian, French etc. isn’t there. Doesn’t mean some of us aren’t trying to change it ;)

      • Gus Mueller

        It says more about the English speakers you associate with. Polyglot is a perfect normal, common, and accepted English word. Let me put it in perspective: I have encountered 3 college educated native English speakers who did not know the meaning of “unintelligible” (thought it meant “unintelligent”.) This caused problems in the workplace and I was told to stop using “ten dollar words”.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Agreed. I’d say the same thing about “amateur scientist” or “amateur astronomer”.

  • http://niel.delarouviere.com NielDLR

    So let’s get this out first. I’ve got a degree in linguistics and currently doing a Master’s Degree in Computer Assisted Language Learning. I also speak two languages natively, Afrikaans & English, and also would consider myself quite fluent in Mandarin. Mandarin was my other major. Starting to dabble in Spanish now.

    Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, here’s my feelings. Non-linguist polyglots are the worst armchair linguists. Frankly many people are armchair linguists, the reason why is, is because people think that mastering a language or talking a language, gives them the right to talk about linguistics.

    Here’s the other dilemma. Yes, polyglots have interesting hands-on experience with second language acquisition, however this does not once again give them the right talk down linguistic claims. The reason for this is, is that you as a polyglot only have subjective experience. Linguists, and you would agree with in an academic field, strive for objectivity in their findings. In any academic paper, claims should be backed by proper research. Subjective claims would be laughed at. HOWEVER, this does not discredit an experience.

    This goes a bit further. One success does not equal an extrapolation to the whole of a field. Thus, non-linguistic polyglots often preach a “gospel”, because their method worked for them. This is a fallacy. I recommend reading  ”Success with foreign languages” (http://www.sil.org/lingualinks/languagelearning/booksbackinprint/successwithforeignlanguages/success.pdf)

    This is an excellent book on the differing styles of learning languages. Each person is different. This is what the academic field of linguistics teaches, is that in researching certain claims, the opposite must always be presented. This once again is an academic point of view. The ever ongoing process of research, thus when non-linguistic polyglots make claims, I want the concrete research. You can’t talk down Krashen if you haven’t studied his work and then followed up on his critiques, or you can’t be a follower of Swain unless you did the same. Etc for whatever you believe in.

    Unfortunately, non-academics will always find research that promotes their view, to highlight that their technique is right, but they fail to research the other side, and this as a linguist is my biggest pet peeve of non-linguistic polyglots.

    Interested to hear what you think Benny? Do you feel that you can talk about second language acquisition on behalf of linguists? I’m a big fan of your approach (envious actually). I recommend you to most of my friends, but sometimes I disagree with some claims, as a skeptical academic I should be.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Thanks Niel, while I agree mostly with your comment, the fact that you are *native* in two languages tells me that you haven’t learned a language to fluency as an adult. This is very important information and it would in my view make your advice less applicable to an adult language learner compared to a non linguist polyglot. This says nothing about your skills as a linguist, but frankly I don’t see you as understanding the context fully enough to advise people.

      I don’t talk down Krashen, but linguists are people with their own agendas and lack of ability to see things impartially too. I’ve heard Krashen’s research quoted in so many contexts to be applied in so many ways, many of which I feel are ludicrous. This says nothing against his research, which I don’t doubt was carefully carried out, just how it’s falsely interpreted and applied. Its applications are WORST by those who extrapolate potential and have no actual experience in applying it.

      As I said, I see this as the sports journalist vs athlete or film critic vs director. Experience is way more important than referencing studies that the person doesn’t properly understand the context of.

      I’ve also written about how there are many ways to learn a language, and certainly no single gospel, but there ARE things many of these approaches may share. http://fi3m.com/any-method/

      I can’t talk more about second language acquisition than linguists who specialise in that can. If those linguists haven’t learned a language as an adult however, I feel that I CAN give way more applicable advice in many situations than academics would.

      It’s similar to scientists vs engineers. A scientist knows how the world works and will discover new information about it through research, but ultimately an engineer knows how to take that advice and make something useful out of it. A chemical engineer will make a much bigger difference in the world *right now* than a chemical scientist would, the same way someone who knows from experience how things work can make a bigger difference to an individual learner than someone who has studied learners with a microscope and not necessarily understand what’s going on in their heads.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Thanks Niel, while I agree mostly with your comment, the fact that you are *native* in two languages tells me that you haven’t learned a language to fluency as an adult. This is very important information and it would in my view make your advice less applicable to an adult language learner compared to a non linguist polyglot. This says nothing about your skills as a linguist, but frankly I don’t see you as understanding the context fully enough to advise people.

      I don’t talk down Krashen, but linguists are people with their own agendas and lack of ability to see things impartially too. I’ve heard Krashen’s research quoted in so many contexts to be applied in so many ways, many of which I feel are ludicrous. This says nothing against his research, which I don’t doubt was carefully carried out, just how it’s falsely interpreted and applied. Its applications are WORST by those who extrapolate potential and have no actual experience in applying it.

      As I said, I see this as the sports journalist vs athlete or film critic vs director. Experience is way more important than referencing studies that the person doesn’t properly understand the context of.

      I’ve also written about how there are many ways to learn a language, and certainly no single gospel, but there ARE things many of these approaches may share. http://fi3m.com/any-method/

      I can’t talk more about second language acquisition than linguists who specialise in that can. If those linguists haven’t learned a language as an adult however, I feel that I CAN give way more applicable advice in many situations than academics would.

      It’s similar to scientists vs engineers. A scientist knows how the world works and will discover new information about it through research, but ultimately an engineer knows how to take that advice and make something useful out of it. A chemical engineer will make a much bigger difference in the world *right now* than a chemical scientist would, the same way someone who knows from experience how things work can make a bigger difference to an individual learner than someone who has studied learners with a microscope and not necessarily understand what’s going on in their heads.

      • http://tumblr.kiefte.eu/ Joop Kiefte

        Some other example: a lot of hardcore mathematics nowadays lays in Computer Science, because without computers most things aren’t verifiable any more. And programmers themselves are basically engineers. They can also tell you about the importance of “sloppy” or “inexact” mathematics in some fields. (Even the biblical value of pi is a good point in case of applying what seems to be terribly non-scientific to get the job done.)

        • Gus Mueller

          Sounds like something a non-mathematician would say.

      • http://niel.delarouviere.com NielDLR

        Thanks for the reply Benny. I think you might have missed my comment where I said I learned Mandarin to fluency. I started learning it at 18. In fact I started a blog at the end of 2009 to chronicle my adventures learning it: http://confusedlaowai.com

        I had an interesting time during University, because it was the first time learning another language while at the same time studying linguistics. I moved through both of them at the same time. This gave me an interesting language acquisition experience, as it was coupled with the complementary teachings we received in linguistics, especially second language acquisition. I was fully aware of of the processes that happened with me while I was learning Mandarin.

        However, that’s not the point, but rather just to add some credibility to my points ;)

        Krashen was just an example. Didn’t mean to apply it to you. He’s just a famous linguist among polyglots/language learners, so I used his name.

        I agree, giving advice when one has had experience, compared with others who hasn’t, makes sense, but I feel, especially being in the position to give advice, that one has to proceed with caution on making claims. One should be one’s own biggest skeptic.

        Once again, I’m just coming from an academic point of view. I find it hard when claims are made, because I’d like it backed up with proof/evidence that does not originate from the author itself.

        Unfortunately, it’s hard to dissuade someone who truly believes their method works the best, but I’d like for non-linguistics polyglots, because they are usually very stubborn on changing their methods, when  presented with evidence otherwise from linguists, to serve some introspection, as academics usually make claims, not based on subjective evidence, but doing concrete research.

        I feel this is the biggest difference between linguists and polyglots, is that linguists would listen to contrasting evidence and even research it further to follow up on claims, whereas polyglots mostly turn down the advice as fallacy, because it does not follow suit to their subjective evidence.

        • http://profiles.google.com/lehcyfer Leszek Cyfer

          What I like about Benny’s blog is how he always says – “this has worked for me – if it works for you, great, if not – try somewhere else, internet is a vast place” :)

        • http://profiles.google.com/lehcyfer Leszek Cyfer

          What I like about Benny’s blog is how he always says – “this has worked for me – if it works for you, great, if not – try somewhere else, internet is a vast place” :)

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

          Whoops! Sorry I missed that!

          Yes, then you’d be a linguist AND a polyglot ;)

          Your arguments against non-linguistic polyglots could just as easily be applied to linguists who believe in a method. Being stubborn is human, even if scientifically you shouldn’t be. Poor science exists in many fields, and I have seen it applied by second language acquisition linguists way too much, which is where MY scepticism comes from.

          The sweeping statement made by this woman at TED: http://fi3m.com/adult-learner-research/ is just one example of a linguist publicly producing pure bullshit WITHOUT properly backing it up (she researches kids, not adults). The title of linguist means she’ll be believed. It’s irresponsible.

          Any frustration I have with linguists is focused on these kinds of totally unhelpful statements that are based on badly interpreted research. Research will not solve all of your problems.

          The difference is that it’s a linguist’s JOB to be impartial. Linguists aren’t supposed to have preference for one method. Anyone promoting a particular method (misguided as it may be) is promoting what they feel works for them. It’s not perfect, but neither is academia.

          For example, I’m under no obligations whatsoever to prove what I say works. I will share my stories, share those of others, and offer my advice and let the reader decide. If I needed to prove everything I said on this blog to academic standards then I’d achieve nothing near the kind of results of people genuinely speaking languages that I am from motivational and other similar posts.

          It’s very easy to order individuals to do concrete research when we don’t have the same means academics have. Those are the rules academics have to play by – things work differently in the real world. There is something to be said about experience, as subjective as it may be.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

          Whoops! Sorry I missed that!

          Yes, then you’d be a linguist AND a polyglot ;)

          Your arguments against non-linguistic polyglots could just as easily be applied to linguists who believe in a method. Being stubborn is human, even if scientifically you shouldn’t be. Poor science exists in many fields, and I have seen it applied by second language acquisition linguists way too much, which is where MY scepticism comes from.

          The sweeping statement made by this woman at TED: http://fi3m.com/adult-learner-research/ is just one example of a linguist publicly producing pure bullshit WITHOUT properly backing it up (she researches kids, not adults). The title of linguist means she’ll be believed. It’s irresponsible.

          Any frustration I have with linguists is focused on these kinds of totally unhelpful statements that are based on badly interpreted research. Research will not solve all of your problems.

          The difference is that it’s a linguist’s JOB to be impartial. Linguists aren’t supposed to have preference for one method. Anyone promoting a particular method (misguided as it may be) is promoting what they feel works for them. It’s not perfect, but neither is academia.

          For example, I’m under no obligations whatsoever to prove what I say works. I will share my stories, share those of others, and offer my advice and let the reader decide. If I needed to prove everything I said on this blog to academic standards then I’d achieve nothing near the kind of results of people genuinely speaking languages that I am from motivational and other similar posts.

          It’s very easy to order individuals to do concrete research when we don’t have the same means academics have. Those are the rules academics have to play by – things work differently in the real world. There is something to be said about experience, as subjective as it may be.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

          Whoops! Sorry I missed that!

          Yes, then you’d be a linguist AND a polyglot ;)

          Your arguments against non-linguistic polyglots could just as easily be applied to linguists who believe in a method. Being stubborn is human, even if scientifically you shouldn’t be. Poor science exists in many fields, and I have seen it applied by second language acquisition linguists way too much, which is where MY scepticism comes from.

          The sweeping statement made by this woman at TED: http://fi3m.com/adult-learner-research/ is just one example of a linguist publicly producing pure bullshit WITHOUT properly backing it up (she researches kids, not adults). The title of linguist means she’ll be believed. It’s irresponsible.

          Any frustration I have with linguists is focused on these kinds of totally unhelpful statements that are based on badly interpreted research. Research will not solve all of your problems.

          The difference is that it’s a linguist’s JOB to be impartial. Linguists aren’t supposed to have preference for one method. Anyone promoting a particular method (misguided as it may be) is promoting what they feel works for them. It’s not perfect, but neither is academia.

          For example, I’m under no obligations whatsoever to prove what I say works. I will share my stories, share those of others, and offer my advice and let the reader decide. If I needed to prove everything I said on this blog to academic standards then I’d achieve nothing near the kind of results of people genuinely speaking languages that I am from motivational and other similar posts.

          It’s very easy to order individuals to do concrete research when we don’t have the same means academics have. Those are the rules academics have to play by – things work differently in the real world. There is something to be said about experience, as subjective as it may be.

      • http://languagehopper.blogspot.com Rick

        “Thanks Niel, while I agree mostly with your comment, the fact that you
        are *native* in two languages tells me that you haven’t learned a
        language to fluency as an adult. This is very important information and
        it would in my view make your advice less applicable to an adult
        language learner compared to a non linguist polyglot. This says nothing
        about your skills as a linguist, but frankly I don’t see you as
        understanding the context fully enough to advise people.”

        To be fair to Niel, he mentions that he considers himself fluent in Mandarin. It was his second major, so I’m going on the (perhaps false) assumption that he learned it as an adult, albeit a young adult.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

          Yes, I did miss that. So my comment doesn’t work against Niel (sorry!) but I stand by what I said generally.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

          Yes, I did miss that. So my comment doesn’t work against Niel (sorry!) but I stand by what I said generally.

      • http://languagehopper.blogspot.com Rick

        “Thanks Niel, while I agree mostly with your comment, the fact that you
        are *native* in two languages tells me that you haven’t learned a
        language to fluency as an adult. This is very important information and
        it would in my view make your advice less applicable to an adult
        language learner compared to a non linguist polyglot. This says nothing
        about your skills as a linguist, but frankly I don’t see you as
        understanding the context fully enough to advise people.”

        To be fair to Niel, he mentions that he considers himself fluent in Mandarin. It was his second major, so I’m going on the (perhaps false) assumption that he learned it as an adult, albeit a young adult.

      • http://languagehopper.blogspot.com Rick

        “Thanks Niel, while I agree mostly with your comment, the fact that you
        are *native* in two languages tells me that you haven’t learned a
        language to fluency as an adult. This is very important information and
        it would in my view make your advice less applicable to an adult
        language learner compared to a non linguist polyglot. This says nothing
        about your skills as a linguist, but frankly I don’t see you as
        understanding the context fully enough to advise people.”

        To be fair to Niel, he mentions that he considers himself fluent in Mandarin. It was his second major, so I’m going on the (perhaps false) assumption that he learned it as an adult, albeit a young adult.

      • Gus Mueller

        Benny, your edit should have been to remove the rest of the paragraph as the material in brackets rendered it irrelevant, immaterial, and superfluous. Big picture-wise, not all linguists are concerned with 2nd language acquisition, in fact most aren’t. Because that’s your field those are the ones you notice, like an auto mechanic who thinks cars are badly made because the ones he sees have problems. Here, the mechanic sees a perfectly running car (material in brackets) and insists it is defective.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Thanks Niel, while I agree mostly with your comment, the fact that you are *native* in two languages tells me that you haven’t learned a language to fluency as an adult. This is very important information and it would in my view make your advice less applicable to an adult language learner compared to a non linguist polyglot. This says nothing about your skills as a linguist, but frankly I don’t see you as understanding the context fully enough to advise people.

      I don’t talk down Krashen, but linguists are people with their own agendas and lack of ability to see things impartially too. I’ve heard Krashen’s research quoted in so many contexts to be applied in so many ways, many of which I feel are ludicrous. This says nothing against his research, which I don’t doubt was carefully carried out, just how it’s falsely interpreted and applied. Its applications are WORST by those who extrapolate potential and have no actual experience in applying it.

      As I said, I see this as the sports journalist vs athlete or film critic vs director. Experience is way more important than referencing studies that the person doesn’t properly understand the context of.

      I’ve also written about how there are many ways to learn a language, and certainly no single gospel, but there ARE things many of these approaches may share. http://fi3m.com/any-method/

      I can’t talk more about second language acquisition than linguists who specialise in that can. If those linguists haven’t learned a language as an adult however, I feel that I CAN give way more applicable advice in many situations than academics would.

      It’s similar to scientists vs engineers. A scientist knows how the world works and will discover new information about it through research, but ultimately an engineer knows how to take that advice and make something useful out of it. A chemical engineer will make a much bigger difference in the world *right now* than a chemical scientist would, the same way someone who knows from experience how things work can make a bigger difference to an individual learner than someone who has studied learners with a microscope and not necessarily understand what’s going on in their heads.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Vortarulo André Müller

      Hi,
      I’m not sure, but are you maybe getting the term “armchair linguist” wrong? To me (and to other linguists), an armchair linguist is a linguist who never goes into field and just sits at home or in his cosy office armchair developing theories about languages and language (two very distinct terms, by the way). I don’t think “armchair linguist” can be used to describe a polyglot who plays linguist.

      But I fully agree with your “other dilemma”, I wanted to state the same.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Vortarulo André Müller

      Hi,
      I’m not sure, but are you maybe getting the term “armchair linguist” wrong? To me (and to other linguists), an armchair linguist is a linguist who never goes into field and just sits at home or in his cosy office armchair developing theories about languages and language (two very distinct terms, by the way). I don’t think “armchair linguist” can be used to describe a polyglot who plays linguist.

      But I fully agree with your “other dilemma”, I wanted to state the same.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Vortarulo André Müller

      Hi,
      I’m not sure, but are you maybe getting the term “armchair linguist” wrong? To me (and to other linguists), an armchair linguist is a linguist who never goes into field and just sits at home or in his cosy office armchair developing theories about languages and language (two very distinct terms, by the way). I don’t think “armchair linguist” can be used to describe a polyglot who plays linguist.

      But I fully agree with your “other dilemma”, I wanted to state the same.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Vortarulo André Müller

      Hi,
      I’m not sure, but are you maybe getting the term “armchair linguist” wrong? To me (and to other linguists), an armchair linguist is a linguist who never goes into field and just sits at home or in his cosy office armchair developing theories about languages and language (two very distinct terms, by the way). I don’t think “armchair linguist” can be used to describe a polyglot who plays linguist.

      But I fully agree with your “other dilemma”, I wanted to state the same.

  • http://twitter.com/xharmony harmony

    I would agree that “linguist” gives me the impression of someone
    studying the field of linguistics and the science  behind languages… 
    while a “polyglot” is simply someone who is skilled at speaking multiple
    languages (they may or may not care about the science behind it).  That
    being said, it seems there is some overlap between the two. Not all linguists speak foreign
    languages, but they are more likely to be interested in them, given the nature of their field. Likewise, 
    such polyglots who enjoy learning languages as a hobby are more likely to
    have an interest in linguistics too. I don’t think one necessarily
    needs to have a degree to be called a linguist…but it does imply that
    they are knowledgeable about how languages work and the systems behind
    them. It’s possible to be both a polyglot and a linguist, but it depends
    on the person and their background.

  • http://twitter.com/hpp23 Нans Рeter Р.

    A linguist:
    someone who teaches or studies linguistics.

    A polyglot:
    someone who speaks many foreign languages.

    In German we have the same terms, and the above differentiation.

  • http://twitter.com/hpp23 Нans Рeter Р.

    A linguist:
    someone who teaches or studies linguistics.

    A polyglot:
    someone who speaks many foreign languages.

    In German we have the same terms, and the above differentiation.

    • Sandra Schröder

      Yeah, in this point German is clear and I was really astonished to learn that in English it might be not so…

    • Gus Mueller

      We have the same differentiation in English.

  • WC

    Totally agree.  One can be an linguist or polyglot without being the other, simply by their focus on the matter.

    However, the ‘amateur’ thing…  You can be a linguist, scientist of astronomer without a degree.  You simply have to be serious enough about it.  If it’s just a hobby, you’re best off calling yourself an ‘amateur’ just to let others know how serious you are about it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=610721321 William Chen

      True, but to gain any academic respect in any field other than the arts, you HAVE to get a PhD these days. I doubt the opinions of untrained astronomers or physicists are much valued in scientific literature. Yes, there are exceptions people will cite, but they are extremely rare…like you might see one once a decade.

      • WC

        Lack of people willing to cite me certainly wouldn’t deter me from dropping ‘amateur’ from the front of my title if I was serious about something.  

        Long before I became a programmer as a profession, I called myself a programmer.  Because I was serious about it.  It was me, it was what I did.  

        All my other hobbies would get the ‘amateur’ tag on them, though.

        • http://www.facebook.com/dominick.odierno Dominick O’Dierno

          The question is, can you be a doctor or an engineer without a degree?

           I know a lot of great and successful self taught programmers, I know a lot of crappy self taught programmers because of huge gaps in their knowledge they never knew they needed to fill.  I have never met a “self taught engineer” worth trusting to build a bridge.

          • WC

            Yes, it’s totally possible, and I’m sure it happens in other countries.  The only reason it doesn’t happen in the US is that there are laws against it.

            There are no laws against programming professionally without certifications yet.

            I’m not saying I would trust an uncertified doctor or architect.  I’m saying it’s possible.  That’s all.  (And I don’t trust programmers, certified or not, without samples of their work.)

        • http://www.facebook.com/Vortarulo André Müller

          But that’s different, isn’t it? A programmer is someone who programs. Maybe someone who programs a lot and is skilled. You don’t need a degree for that. Same as a photograph, many photographers nowadays are self-trained, just as many programmers are.
          But that’s different for the term “linguist”, because a linguist is a scientist by definition (while a photographer and a programmer are not). So dropping the “amateur” (or “hobby”) although you don’t have a degree and aren’t academically studying linguistics is missusing the term.

  • WC

    Totally agree.  One can be an linguist or polyglot without being the other, simply by their focus on the matter.

    However, the ‘amateur’ thing…  You can be a linguist, scientist of astronomer without a degree.  You simply have to be serious enough about it.  If it’s just a hobby, you’re best off calling yourself an ‘amateur’ just to let others know how serious you are about it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dominick.odierno Dominick O’Dierno

    This whole post makes me laugh, you sound like Christophe Clugston,   “grrrrrr linguaphiles!”

  • http://parispassionnee.tumblr.com Anna

    So you never tell people you’re a cunning linguist?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      As you’d know by now, I have a t-shirt saying that … It’s the one exception for when I’ll use the word :P

  • http://www.facebook.com/dominick.odierno Dominick O’Dierno

    Actually, according to Benny’s post, SK is a tremendous athlete, with boatloads of experience, making him the ideal person for people to go to for advice.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      That’s a pretty sloppy interpretation of what I said here. He’s just another person in the race – the “ideal” person to go to if you want to run exactly like he does. I don’t.

      • http://www.facebook.com/dominick.odierno Dominick O’Dierno

        Word for word:

        “A reader once said that a (second language acquisition) linguist vs a polyglot is alike a sports journalist vs an athlete.
        One will have access to all the facts, and research and studied the
        history of the sport, and will have a doctorate and will nitpick every
        single move the player makes in the slow motion replay. But at the end
        of the day, you will always ask the athlete to train you and not the
        journalist if you want to become an athlete yourself.

        Experience is way more important for giving relevant advice.

        But to clarify, I supposed I should have said “AN ideal person to go to for advice”

      • http://www.facebook.com/dominick.odierno Dominick O’Dierno

        Word for word:

        “A reader once said that a (second language acquisition) linguist vs a polyglot is alike a sports journalist vs an athlete.
        One will have access to all the facts, and research and studied the
        history of the sport, and will have a doctorate and will nitpick every
        single move the player makes in the slow motion replay. But at the end
        of the day, you will always ask the athlete to train you and not the
        journalist if you want to become an athlete yourself.

        Experience is way more important for giving relevant advice.

        But to clarify, I supposed I should have said “AN ideal person to go to for advice”

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

          Yes, I know what I wrote a few hours ago. Your interpretation that he’s the “ideal” person based entirely on this quote is still flawed.

          • http://www.facebook.com/dominick.odierno Dominick O’Dierno

            May I ask how so?

  • http://twitter.com/tyham173 Tyler Hamilton

      The topic of what is considered a linguist doesn’t bother me too much.  I guess I believe people can call themselves whatever they want, but I wanted to share a quote for the people who have had comments about how annoying it is when people ask linguists how many languages they speak.  Here it is, “Asking a linguist how many languages he speaks is like asking a doctor how many diseases he has.”  I found it pretty amusing.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      I’m getting so many excellent quotes from the comments here :D Thanks!! :D

      • http://www.facebook.com/Vortarulo André Müller

        Here’s another one I once heard: “Just because I can breathe, I wouldn’t call myself a pulmonolgist.” ;)

      • http://www.facebook.com/Vortarulo André Müller

        Here’s another one I once heard: “Just because I can breathe, I wouldn’t call myself a pulmonolgist.” ;)

      • http://www.facebook.com/Vortarulo André Müller

        Here’s another one I once heard: “Just because I can breathe, I wouldn’t call myself a pulmonolgist.” ;)

      • http://www.facebook.com/Vortarulo André Müller

        Here’s another one I once heard: “Just because I can breathe, I wouldn’t call myself a pulmonolgist.” ;)

  • http://twitter.com/tyham173 Tyler Hamilton

      The topic of what is considered a linguist doesn’t bother me too much.  I guess I believe people can call themselves whatever they want, but I wanted to share a quote for the people who have had comments about how annoying it is when people ask linguists how many languages they speak.  Here it is, “Asking a linguist how many languages he speaks is like asking a doctor how many diseases he has.”  I found it pretty amusing.

  • http://corcaighist.blogspot.com Anonymous

    *Two thumbs up from a linguist* I think it’s great that you point out that the vast majority of linguists do not research second language acquisition. That point is often misunderstood by non-linguists. And also that one can be a linguist but not a polyglot and vice versa. Sometimes both but more often not. Good luck with the next mission and enjoy your holiday back home.

  • http://www.RoadToEpic.com Adam Wik

    As both a trained linguist  and a polyglot, I agree with your definition. A linguist studies how languages work (or sometimes language ‘geneologies’ and related things) but doesn’t have to speak any language other than their native one. I was a linguist (graduated with a degree in linguistics) long before I earned the, in my opinion, much more respectable title of polyglot. In all that time I’ve known lots of monoglot linguists and non-linguist polyglots.

    As a side note, believe me when I say that armchair linguists (all data mining, no first hand experience/fieldwork) are as annoying to others within the actual field of linguistics as they are to you Benny. You should know that a good sized portion of us linguists have been advocating everything you suggest for a while when it comes to language acquisition – we’re not all trying to trick people into believing they’re too old to learn ;-). 

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Glad to hear it! We should join forces and destroy those renegade linguists :P

  • http://www.RoadToEpic.com Adam Wik

    As both a trained linguist  and a polyglot, I agree with your definition. A linguist studies how languages work (or sometimes language ‘geneologies’ and related things) but doesn’t have to speak any language other than their native one. I was a linguist (graduated with a degree in linguistics) long before I earned the, in my opinion, much more respectable title of polyglot. In all that time I’ve known lots of monoglot linguists and non-linguist polyglots.

    As a side note, believe me when I say that armchair linguists (all data mining, no first hand experience/fieldwork) are as annoying to others within the actual field of linguistics as they are to you Benny. You should know that a good sized portion of us linguists have been advocating everything you suggest for a while when it comes to language acquisition – we’re not all trying to trick people into believing they’re too old to learn ;-). 

  • http://www.RoadToEpic.com Adam Wik

    As both a trained linguist  and a polyglot, I agree with your definition. A linguist studies how languages work (or sometimes language ‘geneologies’ and related things) but doesn’t have to speak any language other than their native one. I was a linguist (graduated with a degree in linguistics) long before I earned the, in my opinion, much more respectable title of polyglot. In all that time I’ve known lots of monoglot linguists and non-linguist polyglots.

    As a side note, believe me when I say that armchair linguists (all data mining, no first hand experience/fieldwork) are as annoying to others within the actual field of linguistics as they are to you Benny. You should know that a good sized portion of us linguists have been advocating everything you suggest for a while when it comes to language acquisition – we’re not all trying to trick people into believing they’re too old to learn ;-). 

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Among English speakers it definitely is not half in my experience.

    • Gus Mueller

      Sample size? Number of native English speaking linguists known to you?

    • blob_the_builder

      I studied linguistics and even worked for a time as a linguist in Australian language documentation and revitalisation – but I wouldn’t call myself a linguist anymore! In this are of linguistics, most of the linguists spoke foreign languages as well as having some or extensive knowledge of the Australian languages they were working with.

      Linguistics is both an arcane field and a very broad one, so that most linguists seemed to be completely unaware of many areas of linguistic theory.

      Where I studied, the linguistic focus was on how language worked as a social system – it was very rigorous and detailed, but rarely touched on foreign languages. In this case, I’d guess 90% of staff and students were monolingual. And of the students who I studied foreign languages with, I’d say 95+ did not study linguistics!

      So I’d agree that linguist and polyglot are completely different categories (although I think linguistics would improve in linguists learnt foreign languages more).

      To slightly modify your athlete analogy, I think rather than journalist, linguists are more like sports scientists, who cover the athletes in sensors and know intimately how muscles work, protein burns, etc., etc. Some of this knowledge may have practical application, but in general you’d be far better learning off a successful athlete rather than a scientist.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    As I said before, I’m as much a linguist as I am an astrophysicist. I also have rudimentary understanding of astronomy and the physics of planetary movement, and have read some books about it and like gazing into the stars, but that doesn’t change the fact that calling me an astrophysicist would be wrong.

    I don’t consider this blog a linguist blog because I very rarely discuss technical aspects of languages (only once per mission to summarise the language). As people know I describe my style as language hacking, and that’s what I blog about ;)

    Not sure what to call those people who passively “know” languages. That kind of use of languages doesn’t interest me much, if no interaction is involved.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I don’t want anyone studying me unless she’s single and very pretty. But otherwise I agree fully :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I’m glad to say that I don’t live in the 16th century, so fascinating as it is how the word was used initially, the way I’ve defined it here is what seems more logical nowadays. No need to add yet another word to confuse the issue even more :P

    • Gus Mueller

      Benny’s usage (notice I don’t say definition) is the current one. The field of linguistics arose out of people learning languages. It’s not like computer programming where the field was formalized (Russell, Turing) before the hands-on work was done.

      LInguist and polyglot? Tolkien, Sapir, Whorf, Boas, Kroeber, most of the big names you recognize from the 20th century, even Chomsky if you count bilingual as polyglot.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Thanks for the comment!

  • http://corcaighist.blogspot.com Anonymous

    Actually, linguists don’t tell people how to learn languages. That is the job of language teachers. Some linguists (those involved in language acquisition) study language acquisition, they publish their findings, these are interpreted for language teachers, then teachers go out and teach people the tools and materials they need. Of course you don’t need teachers (I am one myself btw) as it is very possible to learn a language in the field (as Benny and other polyglots do). So, you are right in what linguists should do. Only that it is what they do already. They research language learning not teach languages (unless of course they are teaching linguistics).

  • http://corcaighist.blogspot.com Anonymous

    Actually, linguists don’t tell people how to learn languages. That is the job of language teachers. Some linguists (those involved in language acquisition) study language acquisition, they publish their findings, these are interpreted for language teachers, then teachers go out and teach people the tools and materials they need. Of course you don’t need teachers (I am one myself btw) as it is very possible to learn a language in the field (as Benny and other polyglots do). So, you are right in what linguists should do. Only that it is what they do already. They research language learning not teach languages (unless of course they are teaching linguistics).

  • Gosxka

    your definition is proper of course
    I think you must have got annoyed because of these English speakers or monoliguals, I haven’t come across in Polish the problem of (conf)using words polyglot and linguist.
    so keep good work and teach others by your blog or personally :)
    but I must admit I prefer to have an explanation of a word or a structure from someone who knows sth. about how the language works, not only e.g. a native. so that I understand it better. e.g. I think one wouldn’t annoy about Polish ‘ó’ and ‘u’ for ‘u’ and ‘rz’ and ‘ż’ for if they knew about the history of the language, so why they remained.

  • Gosxka

    your definition is proper of course
    I think you must have got annoyed because of these English speakers or monoliguals, I haven’t come across in Polish the problem of (conf)using words polyglot and linguist.
    so keep good work and teach others by your blog or personally :)
    but I must admit I prefer to have an explanation of a word or a structure from someone who knows sth. about how the language works, not only e.g. a native. so that I understand it better. e.g. I think one wouldn’t annoy about Polish ‘ó’ and ‘u’ for ‘u’ and ‘rz’ and ‘ż’ for if they knew about the history of the language, so why they remained.

  • http://profiles.google.com/dokuritsuproject Santiago Madrigal

    Well, the thing is that if you look it up on an English dictionary, the first definition of linguist is “A person skilled in foreign languages”, but I would say that the second definition (“A person with a background on/that studied/graduated on linguistics”) is the MOST widespread. If you hear “polyglot” you immediately think “a person proficient in several languages”, but when most people hear “linguist” they think “a person that studies linguistics”.

    Maybe you can just give this little explanation when someone calls you a linguist and say that you would prefer to be called a polyglot, but that’s just my $0.02

    Benny, me impresiona que respondas a casi todos los comentarios que recibes en tu blog.
    Te felicito por tu dedicación!! :D

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Gracias ;)

  • http://yetanotherlanguage.blogspot.com/ Crno Srce

    True, but  ”Cunning Polyglot” isn’t really funny at all :-)

  • http://yetanotherlanguage.blogspot.com/ Crno Srce

    True, but  ”Cunning Polyglot” isn’t really funny at all :-)

  • Tergiversator_Maximus

    I absolutely agree with you and I’ve long felt the same way.

  • Annette

    You are so right, Benny.  It is one of my pet-peeves, too, when people call polyglots linguists.  I think most people don’t know any better, though, so I think it’s good you’ve explained it in this post.

    I started off with my university degree, majoring in linguistics.  When I chose linguistics, I didn’t even really know what it was!  I just knew I liked languages so at the time it made sense to me to study linguistics.  I really enjoyed the introductory courses but it quickly became very clear to me that this was a very detail oriented discipline that sometimes seemed to me to be quite tedious.  I found studying ABOUT languages to be interesting, but I realized it was more important to me to study the languages, themselves.  I have been much more satisfied with my university career now that I’ve switched to majoring in German and minoring in Italian, though I still find linguistics interesting.  I now take linguistics classes IN GERMAN!  ;)

  • Anonymous

    SK?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Someone who claims to be a linguist, but isn’t by my definition.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    A linguist can’t tell you that! Please don’t confuse linguist with language teacher.

    Even a second language acquisition linguist will study the PROCESS of learning, but will not necessarily know anything about any particular language. Back to the analogy; some athletes are also good teachers and have experience in context. But a sports journalist who has read about how to train would be worse than an athlete who read about how to train because the latter has relevant experience.

    Being able to explain the reason a language works would be an aspect of linguistics, but explaining it in the context of how it can help an individual language learner is very different. Sometimes complex explanations are the worst thing you can do.

    • Gus Mueller

      Yes!

  • http://www.facebook.com/Vortarulo André Müller

    I absolutely agree with you, Benny.
    As a linguist myself (and only a part-time polyglot, hehe), I can tell you: we linguists usually have the exact inverse problem: we tell anyone we’re linguists and the usual question is: “Oh, great! So how many languages do you speak?” — I always want to answer something like “Only English and German.” just to confuse them, but I *do* speak 4½ languages, so I always have to explain the difference. Then people often don’t see the sense in linguistics and even after my lengthy explanation they ask if I want to become a translator, a language teacher or something similarly unrelated to linguistics.

    Your descriptions of what linguistics is about is really accurate. People missusing the term are similarly annoying as people using “Caucasian” in the sense of “white skinned”.

    Greetings from Germany,
    - André

    • Anonymous

      André wrote:
      ‘Your descriptions of what linguistics is about is really accurate. People missusing the term are similarly annoying as people using “Caucasian” in the sense of “white skinned”.’

      Students of linguistics ought to pay attention to Wittgenstein’s maxim: Don’t look for the meaning, look for the use.’ It is the language community that determines how words are used, and if the majority of the members of that community use ‘Caucasian’ to mean ‘European, pale skinned’, there is not much we can do about it. Similarly, a paedophile is not someone who loves children but someone who molests them.

    • Anonymous

      André wrote:
      ‘Your descriptions of what linguistics is about is really accurate. People missusing the term are similarly annoying as people using “Caucasian” in the sense of “white skinned”.’

      Students of linguistics ought to pay attention to Wittgenstein’s maxim: Don’t look for the meaning, look for the use.’ It is the language community that determines how words are used, and if the majority of the members of that community use ‘Caucasian’ to mean ‘European, pale skinned’, there is not much we can do about it. Similarly, a paedophile is not someone who loves children but someone who molests them.

    • Anonymous

      André wrote:
      ‘Your descriptions of what linguistics is about is really accurate. People missusing the term are similarly annoying as people using “Caucasian” in the sense of “white skinned”.’

      Students of linguistics ought to pay attention to Wittgenstein’s maxim: Don’t look for the meaning, look for the use.’ It is the language community that determines how words are used, and if the majority of the members of that community use ‘Caucasian’ to mean ‘European, pale skinned’, there is not much we can do about it. Similarly, a paedophile is not someone who loves children but someone who molests them.

    • Anonymous

      André wrote:
      ‘Your descriptions of what linguistics is about is really accurate. People missusing the term are similarly annoying as people using “Caucasian” in the sense of “white skinned”.’

      Students of linguistics ought to pay attention to Wittgenstein’s maxim: Don’t look for the meaning, look for the use.’ It is the language community that determines how words are used, and if the majority of the members of that community use ‘Caucasian’ to mean ‘European, pale skinned’, there is not much we can do about it. Similarly, a paedophile is not someone who loves children but someone who molests them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Vortarulo André Müller

    > This is what the linguistic is about.

    No, actually not at all. Linguistics is not only about describing and understanding grammar. It’s not enough for a linguist to just describe the declension pattern of a foreign language, you’d have to come up with a theory WHY it is as it is, find some implications for other theories, etc. Things that a language learner usually isn’t concerned with.
    At least in German linguistics there’s the term “school grammar” (Schulgrammatik), which refers to the grammatical understanding that is used to learn a language. That’s what’s interesting for a polyglot (whether he uses actual grammatic books or learns the langauge in field is another thing), but a linguist wants to know what is behind. Things that are often uninteresting or overdoing for polyglots.

    So I disagree with you just as Benny does. Writing this blog is not linguistic, it’s polyglot(tic?). Because linguistics is a science and although Benny’s blog contains LOADS of very useful and informative suggestions on how to learn languages, it’s not scientific (this sounds like a harsh critic, but Benny didn’t intend it to be scientific either).

    Interesting idea though, about a passive knower of languages. Maybe “passive polyglot” might describe it well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Vortarulo André Müller

    > This is what the linguistic is about.

    No, actually not at all. Linguistics is not only about describing and understanding grammar. It’s not enough for a linguist to just describe the declension pattern of a foreign language, you’d have to come up with a theory WHY it is as it is, find some implications for other theories, etc. Things that a language learner usually isn’t concerned with.
    At least in German linguistics there’s the term “school grammar” (Schulgrammatik), which refers to the grammatical understanding that is used to learn a language. That’s what’s interesting for a polyglot (whether he uses actual grammatic books or learns the langauge in field is another thing), but a linguist wants to know what is behind. Things that are often uninteresting or overdoing for polyglots.

    So I disagree with you just as Benny does. Writing this blog is not linguistic, it’s polyglot(tic?). Because linguistics is a science and although Benny’s blog contains LOADS of very useful and informative suggestions on how to learn languages, it’s not scientific (this sounds like a harsh critic, but Benny didn’t intend it to be scientific either).

    Interesting idea though, about a passive knower of languages. Maybe “passive polyglot” might describe it well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Vortarulo André Müller

    > This is what the linguistic is about.

    No, actually not at all. Linguistics is not only about describing and understanding grammar. It’s not enough for a linguist to just describe the declension pattern of a foreign language, you’d have to come up with a theory WHY it is as it is, find some implications for other theories, etc. Things that a language learner usually isn’t concerned with.
    At least in German linguistics there’s the term “school grammar” (Schulgrammatik), which refers to the grammatical understanding that is used to learn a language. That’s what’s interesting for a polyglot (whether he uses actual grammatic books or learns the langauge in field is another thing), but a linguist wants to know what is behind. Things that are often uninteresting or overdoing for polyglots.

    So I disagree with you just as Benny does. Writing this blog is not linguistic, it’s polyglot(tic?). Because linguistics is a science and although Benny’s blog contains LOADS of very useful and informative suggestions on how to learn languages, it’s not scientific (this sounds like a harsh critic, but Benny didn’t intend it to be scientific either).

    Interesting idea though, about a passive knower of languages. Maybe “passive polyglot” might describe it well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Vortarulo André Müller

    > This is what the linguistic is about.

    No, actually not at all. Linguistics is not only about describing and understanding grammar. It’s not enough for a linguist to just describe the declension pattern of a foreign language, you’d have to come up with a theory WHY it is as it is, find some implications for other theories, etc. Things that a language learner usually isn’t concerned with.
    At least in German linguistics there’s the term “school grammar” (Schulgrammatik), which refers to the grammatical understanding that is used to learn a language. That’s what’s interesting for a polyglot (whether he uses actual grammatic books or learns the langauge in field is another thing), but a linguist wants to know what is behind. Things that are often uninteresting or overdoing for polyglots.

    So I disagree with you just as Benny does. Writing this blog is not linguistic, it’s polyglot(tic?). Because linguistics is a science and although Benny’s blog contains LOADS of very useful and informative suggestions on how to learn languages, it’s not scientific (this sounds like a harsh critic, but Benny didn’t intend it to be scientific either).

    Interesting idea though, about a passive knower of languages. Maybe “passive polyglot” might describe it well.

  • http://www.creativityandlanguages.com/ Peter

    It is not linguists Vs Polyglots.  They do different things, with different aims and with different methods.

  • Victor Berrjod

    I never use “linguist” to mean anything other than someone working with or studying linguistics. However, a Chinese friend once used it to mean roughly the same as polyglot, and when I corrected her, she pointed out that several dictionaries contain both definitions under “linguist”. While linguists and polyglots are two different things in my view, I don’t feel like I can correct other people for using the “wrong” term. On the other hand, the dictionary isn’t law, and I do explain my view if I need to. Usually, it’s not really a big problem for me personally, since I do consider myself a linguist as well.

  • Edward Chien

    I also agree with your usage. Those who want to call as “linguists” those who speak multiple languages have no better name for those who have studied linguistics than “those who have studied linguistics”!

  • Edward Chien

    I also agree with your usage. Those who want to call as “linguists” those who speak multiple languages have no better name for those who have studied linguistics than “those who have studied linguistics”!

  • Edward Chien

    I also agree with your usage. Those who want to call as “linguists” those who speak multiple languages have no better name for those who have studied linguistics than “those who have studied linguistics”!

  • Edward Chien

    I also agree with your usage. Those who want to call as “linguists” those who speak multiple languages have no better name for those who have studied linguistics than “those who have studied linguistics”!

  • Reniepeck

    You are right on, Benny. I am more impressed with your ability to express yourself clearly and intellegently. You are a wonderful communicator. I say educate the people who call you a linguist and set ‘em straight, once and for all!

  • http://www.facebook.com/lindsay.giacomino Lindsay Giacomino

    As someone who considers themself a linguist (I’m going for a linguistics degree), I couldn’t agree more with this article. True, there are some linguists who are polyglots (learning how languages work, I feel, often speeds up the learning process) and vice-versa. However, the two are not the same by any means, and there are even some famous linguists (Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker) who are rumored to only speak English and not other languages, but maybe they’re just “closet polyglots” who want to make sure that the terms polyglot and linguist stay separated…

    I can’t tell you how irritated I get when I say I’m a linguist and people ask how many languages I speak. They are usually pretty disappointed to hear that I only speak one other language fluently (Spanish) and one conversationally at best (German). That’s not to say that second language acquisition reachers don’t have any valid points about learning language, but I do feel that many of them do not take the communicative approach to language learning (or teaching) very seriously.

    That being said, I do think this article definitely needed to be written! Thanks!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Glad you liked it ;) Happy to see that linguists are agreeing with me on this point, but as you say it does need to be written because of so much confusion about it.

  • http://twitter.com/georginaheredia Georgina Heredia

    Mágico. Yo, como lingüista, te agradezco hasta el fin de los tiempos que defiendas el nombre de los que nos dedicamos a esto. A mí también me molesta que los políglotas se digan lingüistas porque sí. Es bueno saber que tu blog tiene tantos lectores y que a mucha gente le quedará claro esto. Gracias. :D

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Es peor en inglés porque no se sabe nada de la palabra “políglota”. Pero como ves, lo cambio poco a poco ;)

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Absolutely agreed, and I remember having this rather frustrating argument with someone a few months ago (can’t remember who) who insisted that they were ‘linguists’ basically because they were kinda interested in languages and wanted to be called a ‘linguist’.  Look, if you don’t have a PhD in it and study it for a living, academically, you’re not a ‘linguist’, ok? Just stop it.  Polyglot, fine. Language nerd, fine.  But just because you speak X number of languages and know a lot about them does not make you a linguist.  A linguist is an academic field, you don’t get to call yourself a psychologist just because you’re interested in psychology and read a lot about it.

    Good call.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Absolutely agreed, and I remember having this rather frustrating argument with someone a few months ago (can’t remember who) who insisted that they were ‘linguists’ basically because they were kinda interested in languages and wanted to be called a ‘linguist’.  Look, if you don’t have a PhD in it and study it for a living, academically, you’re not a ‘linguist’, ok? Just stop it.  Polyglot, fine. Language nerd, fine.  But just because you speak X number of languages and know a lot about them does not make you a linguist.  A linguist is an academic field, you don’t get to call yourself a psychologist just because you’re interested in psychology and read a lot about it.

    Good call.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Great comment, but I disagree with 2. I’ve met a lot of linguists who come from many branches that simply aren’t concerned with practical adult second language acquisition, and they do not speak other languages, especially in America. I wouldn’t call them an armchair linguist though – as much as I wouldn’t call an astrophysicist an armchair astrophysicist because he hasn’t journeyed across the galaxy.

    Otherwise I agree with your points, thanks!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_S6BY26FQMRNEIBGV7JDNWEURUM CassieB

    I’m glad that you differentiate between a polyglot and a linguist. I myself am studying French, Japanese as well as linguistics and honestly it’s pretty cool incorporating the what you’ve learned from foreign languages and seeing how it fits with the technical stuff and vice versa. 

    I also don’t like the question of how many languages I speak when I say I’m studying linguistics because one doesn’t imply the other and at the same time I’m not a good example because I am learning multiple languages…

  • Kristen Beebe

    I’ve just discovered your blog a couple months ago, and today I happened to read this specific post because you linked to it in your latest entry. 

    As an aspiring linguist and a polyglot, I just wanted to heartily agree with you! And thank you for what you’re doing–your pursuits are a living denial to so many misconceptions about second language acquisition. I used to accept what many of my textbooks and teachers have said about the language-learning process (the fact that it takes years and can be nearly impossible for older learners to have good pronunciation, etc), but I’m starting to be more critical of what “experts” in my field have said about learning languages. And I find it just as discouraging as you (if not more so) that there are so many linguists extrapolating data incorrectly, but I hope you’ve had the opportunity to meet some linguists who have much more useful things to say than discouraging people from learning languages! 
    Best wishes with your Mandarin-learning pursuits. It sounds to me like you’re going to deliver another fatal blow to those who say what you’re doing is impossible, so keep up the good work! 

  • Ygor Phobic

    Hey Benny. I’ve recently been turned onto your blog, and I know this is a very old post, but I thought I would comment that this post was very well thought out and is very well how I often distinguish to friends of mine who think I’m going to be a polyglot when I tell them I’m studying linguistics. Very good post and I am going to be linking to it on my new blog, Lingua Francanstein. Come check it out sometime!

  • Dr. Bob

    I believe the term “linguist” as applied to a person who speaks more than one language is the older and more traditional use of the term. It is still used widely in official settings such as the military and the intelligence community. “Linguist” as applied to someone who studies “about” languages instead of studying languages is more recent. Several alternative terms were tried including philologist until we adopted the term from the French — linquistique. So, I’m going to stick with the term linguist for someone who is a polyglot and I’ll accept it for those who study languages whether they speak more than one too. On the other hand, I have heard that polylingual applies to someone who speaks three or more languages, bilingual to one who speaks two, and monolingual is another term for American.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      I’m not interested in English from the 18th century. Gay used to mean happy, but now it doesn’t.

      Perhaps it’s an American thing, but I’ve never associated linguist with anything but the more academic meaning. I didn’t know the word polyglot growing up, but I did know the word multilingual.

      I will always correct people if they call me a linguist. Enough people understand this term to mean “qualified language scientist” that it would be misleading of me to claim I am one. I prefer there to be no ambiguity and people will be absolutely sure that my advice is based on experience rather than formal research and statistics.

  • http://twitter.com/amelieamilli Amelie B-O

    Yes, you have to correct people when they say you’re a linguist.

    However, you also have to correct linguists who do not speak more than one language when they tell you things that you know/don’t believe are true.

    I was drawn to linguistics because I liked learning languages. I personally think language learning and linguistics naturally go together but… I guess it depends on your views about linguistics…

  • http://www.facebook.com/sofie.esther Sofie Clara Esther

    I really like this article. :) I am Majoring in Linguistics and Minoring in German. As our linguistic teachers frequently love to remind us, you can be a perfectly good linguist while only speaking one language, and you can speak five languages and know nothing about linguistics. Polyglots are not linguists, and linguists aren’t necessarily polyglots (although it is true that many linguists speak more than one language.)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Actually in my experience very few linguists speak more than one language in countries that tend to be monolingual anyway.

      But within the sub-branch of those specialising in linguistics of second language acquisition then it is indeed more common that they speak more than one language, although this is a tiny sampling of linguists in general.

      • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

        Sorry Benny but this just isn’t true. A large majority of (true) linguists are polyglots. I don’t mean people who say “I have a BA in linguistics so I’m a linguist” because you can’t truly be called a linguist until you’ve done real academic research. Academia requires multilingualism even in monolingual countries. You wouldn’t be taken seriously as a language scientist unless you spoke more than one language. The problem is that “linguist” often gets confused with “cognitive scientist” or “psychologist” or even “education researcher” and those academics are most likely not polyglots. Patricia Kuhl is a great example. She is in no way a true linguist yet she uses linguistic terms to fool people into thinking that what she does is valid linguistic research. She is a psychologist and speech scientist, but that is all. We true linguists disagree with her as much as you do because what she says contradicts actual linguistic research.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

          My experience has been totally different. In fact, many linguists have told me that they find the question “how many languages do you speak” (including a few in comments here) to be really frustrating precisely because they do NOT speak other languages, and wish people understood what the word meant.

          A “large majority” of linguists that I have met, working in computational linguistics, phonetics, neurolinguistics, ancient languages, theoretical fields and many other aspects of linguistics simply do not speak other languages. And why would they? It’s not relevant to their specialisation. I totally disagree with you that these people “wouldn’t be taken seriously” if they were monolinguals. This is ludicrous! Come on Jennie! Are you saying these people simply can’t claim to be linguists? That’s quite a statement!

          You seem to have a bias towards second language acquisition as being the only “true” linguistics, if you think speaking a second language is a pre-requisit, when clearly it’s a very large field, where in most cases speaking a second language is NOT necessary and makes no difference to how good a scientist you are.

          A SLA linguist not speaking another language would indeed be strange, and hopefully a minority. But sadly, I have seen these too.

          Otherwise, I’m very glad to read that “you true linguists” (i.e. “you SLA linguists”) agree with me and found her hand-waving claims unscientific.

          I find your comments strange. It’s like me claiming that electronic engineers are the only “true” engineers.

          • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

            Apparently my sarcasm wasn’t blatant enough…
            I was being serious about Kuhl though.

  • lapsang

    I didn’t see this mentioned in the first page of comments, and I know this is an old post, but I just wanted to mention that the confusion of the two terms may be partially blamed on the US Army. Anyone who is employed for their language skills, i.e., translation, teaching, etc. is called a “Linguist.” Clearly it’s confusing. I think the term is technically correct though. Dictionaries would agree. Perhaps the reason for the overlap is that once-upon-a-time only those who were “skilled with language” were philologists, or linguists. When the field was emerging, it was hardly possible to be a scientist of language without having studied several languages. You don’t know what to look for, etc. For example, the man who first proposed the idea that several languages across the world were at one time related… was a hyperpolyglot. William Jones’ familiarity with over 40 languages is what helped us to uncover Proto-Indo-European. Clearly, today the field of linguistics is so advanced that is difficult for a polyglot to contribute to the scientific advancement of the field without specifically having studied the science.

  • sandeep

    who is a Lingui then?

  • GT

    Ok, I can see this is from a long time ago, but still kinda feel the need to call bull on this. I think you’re missing an important point: linguists who study second language acquisition (and not all do) are drawing on not just their own experiences but the experiences of many other learners when they draw their conclusions. That’s the point of collecting research data.

    Also, I can’t speak for all schools, but when we studied second language learning and teaching during my linguistics degree, part of the course was documenting our own experience of trying to learn a new language, reflecting on previous attempts and interviewing other learners about theirs. For nearly everyone doing the course, this meant picking a third, fourth, fifth…xth language, because guess what kind of people tend to be interested in this sort of thing?! I’d say at least a quarter of the group were actually studying the subject in a second or third language, and I honestly doubt there was more than one person, if that, who had never tried learning one before. There would have been a few more in the general pool of people studying linguistics, although they’d still have been the minority, but not amongst those studying second language acquisition. This was in Australia – I recognise it may be different in other places.

    The first point applies even to non-language learners though. To continue the analogy from previous posts, you don’t need to be either a coach or an athlete to observe similarities and differences in the methods and success of either, or to interview them about their experiences. Do you really think conclusions about second language learning are made in a vacuum, away from learners or teachers (where there are teachers)? Seriously, does that sound like academic rigour to you? Linguistics is an academic discipline, after all. Sure, some linguists will be better than others at choosing what to look at and how to interpret the data, but they should be trained well enough to have a fair shot at it and they have far more data available to them than their own experiences. Compare it to an athlete who’s only had a couple of coaches, or only been trained one way – how can they know if another way might have worked better for them or not? They may not be aware of other methods but you can bet the sports scientists at their national institute will have heard of some, and be collecting data on how well kids perform under those methods, which ones are safe, etc., which a single athlete can’t find out simply from his or her own experience, because one person getting injured or having a brilliant career doesn’t give you the whole picture. Yes, having tried something can help shape a study of it. It might also limit your vantage point.

    Of course, this is the sub-group of linguists whose academic interest is second language acquisition. There are many other branches of linguistics.

    Sorry if this sounds too attacking – I’m sending it in a friendly spirit, just not in agreement with you! You’ve obviously got a huge spark of curiosity, which I love, and a willingness to try things with gusto (very useful for learning languages), and since you’ve brought it up, I thought you might find this useful in understanding what a linguist’s opinion might be worth on the subject.

    By the way, contrary to certain marketing messages I keep seeing around, most linguists love the idea of great new ways to learn languages – why wouldn’t we?! :-)

    • GT

      Oh, and who said the linguist has to become a teacher to contribute? They can influence public policy and the planning of language programs without actually teaching. Just like a sports scientist can influence decisions about sports classes in schools or training methods at clubs.

  • Emily Bailey

    I didn’t know what the word “polyglot” meant and had never heard of it until I came across your websites! I do think there’s a difference between a linguist and a polyglot; exactly how you described. Before I knew the word polyglot I would have said someone speaking multiple languages to be “multi-lingual”. Which I guess is true, but there’s a proper word for that: polyglot.

    I only speak English at the moment but am working on becoming a polyglot! I’m learning Spanish and my next goal is American Sign Language (I think we should of had just one sign language… but I suppose, that would be boring – just as we have so many different spoken languages).

  • Rachel Hay

    Maybe it’s because polyglots are so rare in the English-speaking world most of us simply have no comprehension of it? This as compared to the rest of the world, where polyglots are very common.

  • Rachel Hay

    I’d probably say I’m a “student” polyglot and an “amateur” linguist. I’m not sure I’m actually fluent in anything except my native language (English), but I’m certainly approaching fluency in a couple of others and really just love learn as many languages (or bits of languages) as possible. I’m not a linguist by any stretch of the imagination (yet), but I have a reasonable understanding of linguisticky-stuff and fully intend to study linguistics once I’m done with high school.

    I think most polyglots must be “amateur” linguists because it’s pretty impossible to learn too many languages without gaining a basic understanding of how languages work. Of course, it might be different for someone learning by immersion, but if you study languages in school or lessons you get bogged down with grammar stuff, and after so many languages it even begins to make sense how all the bits fit together…

  • fargok

    Well, I am a linguist (well, a in training linguists, if you want, because I’m still in the B.A. program). And a polyglot (currently able to speak spanish -my native language, english and french, and learning japanese, esperanto an mexican sign language). But it’s weird, you know? As a polyglot, I love second language learning and acquisition, but as a linguist, it’s not a subject I’m really interested in. As you said, linguistics cover A LOT of things, and us linguist have to specialize in some fields… I’m much more interested in what it’s called theoretical linguistics (more specifically: syntax and semantics) rather than applied linguistics (language learning, language teaching, translation studies…), so I don’t make claims about how we learn languages because, even if I surely had some classes regarding that, it’s not my main field of interest and research. Anyways, thank you for “protecting” our word… You’re very right, being a linguists it’s about studying a specific science.

  • vijay

    i do not know whats the meaning of linguist . please clarify

  • Sean Heiss

    Well first off, Benny, the “-ist” suffix does not mean “one who studies”. Closer to that would be “-ologist”, but “-ist” itself just marks an agent, just like the PERSON sign in ASL. A journalist isn’t usually someone who studies journals, rather someone that reports, writing newspaper or magazine articles. So, a linguist one not someone that studies linguistics, just languages. By your definition, someone can only be a linguist while in a college or university taking classes, since once they are done they won’t be studying linguistics anymore, they will be usually doing linguistic research of some kind.

  • Gus Mueller

    In the U.S. we call those people illegal aliens. Much like Manuel from Fawlty Towers.

  • Gus Mueller

    “Linguists shouldn’t be TELLING people how to learn languages, they should be STUDYING how they do it” and YOU shouldn’t be TELLING linguists to STUDY because that’s what they do.

    And now you want linguists to study brains? No, you get the buzzer. BZZZT!

  • Gus Mueller

    And some bad people try to lure children into their vans.

    “(Like the ones who say adults can’t learn…)” Now you’re just making stuff up. Name one. Just one. I’ll be waiting in the van.

  • Jrc513

    I have to disagree. That’s why he makes the point to say he isn’t a linguist. I study linguistics, but learn languages as well and they are not the same. He may understand a language’s rule, but can he write the phonological rules? He may understand an accent, but can he produce and analyze VOT’s or fundamental frequencies? He may understand a language’s grammar, but can he write syntactic rules?

  • Nara X

    I’m an undergrad student majoring in linguistics, so I’m so happy to see you made this post. This has always driven me crazy too. But it’s insane how many linguists out there don’t actually know a second language! I guess it’s just hard for me to understand because I became interested in linguistics from learning other languages and seeing what was different about them. I have a hard time seeing how the process would work the other way around, haha. But it clearly does for some people. I love your blog, by the way. :)

  • Sofie Couwenbergh

    I completely agree with you. I’ve actually studied linguistics (and literature), but I haven’t done much with it after my studies.
    Like you say: a linguist can be a polyglot, but isn’t necessarily so. It’s someone who studies language and, more specifically, the structure of languages.

    One of my friends, someone I studies with, is now a linguistic researcher and she is studying language acquisition from a neural viewpoint. For example, she looks at what happens language wise in the brains when somehow has had a stroke and has to start learning a language anew.