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Ask the readers: What is a linguist?

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

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 or wearing one of my joke “cunning linguist” t-shirts).

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

There is a problem with both fields (those experienced in learning languages, and those who study the science of languages) merging and some people claiming knowledge in a field they have none.

I have come across the odd linguist spreading discouraging and false claims about language learning. These are “linguists” in the general sense that they work in linguistics academically, but I don't see them as following the scientific approach. As in any field, some people are just not good at science and instead extrapolate 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 really enjoy the company of many linguists who have taught me many things about how languages work, even if it's completely unrelated to second language acquisition. 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!) 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 can barely 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?

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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