Why is studying linguistics useful? *Is* studying linguistics useful?

So I recently gave a talk at the University of Washington Scholar’s Studio. In it, I covered a couple things that I’ve already talked about here on my blog: the fact that, acoustically speaking, there’s no such thing as a “word” and that our ears can trick us. My general point was that our intuitions about speech, a lot of the things we think seem completely obvious, actually aren’t true at all from an acoustic perspective.

What really got to me, though, was that after I’d finished my talk (and it was super fast, too, only five minutes) someone asked why it mattered. Why should we care that our intuitions don’t match reality? We can still communicate perfectly well. How is linguistics useful, they asked. Why should they care?

I’m sorry, what was it you plan to spend your life studying again? I know you told me last week, but for some reason all I remember you saying is “Blah, blah, giant waste of time.”

It was a good question, and I’m really bummed I didn’t have time to answer it. I sometimes forget, as I’m wading through a hip-deep piles of readings that I need to get to, that it’s not immediately obvious to other people why what I do is important. And it is! If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be in grad school. (It’s certainly not the glamorous easy living and fat salary that keep me here.) It’s important in two main ways. Way one is the way in which it enhances our knowledge and way two is the way that it helps people.

 Increasing our knowledge. Ok, so, a lot of our intuitions are wrong. So what? So a lot of things! If we’re perceiving things that aren’t really there, or not perceiving things that are really there, something weird and interesting is going on. We’re really used to thinking of ourselves as pretty unbiased in our observations. Sure, we can’t hear all the sounds that are made, but we’ve built sensors for that, right? But it’s even more pervasive than that. We only perceive the things that our bodies and sensory organs and brains can perceive, and we really don’t know how all these biological filters work. Well, okay, we do know some things (lots and lots of things about ears, in particular) but there’s a whole lot that we still have left to learn. The list of unanswered questions in linguistics is a little daunting, even just in the sub-sub-field of perceptual phonetics.

Every single one of us uses language every single day. And we know embarrassingly little about how it works. And, what we do know, it’s often hard to share with people who have little background in linguistics. Even here, in my blog, without time restraints and an audience that’s already pretty interested (You guys are awesome!) I often have to gloss over interesting things. Not because I don’t think you’ll understand them, but because I’d metaphorically have to grow a tree, chop it down and spends hours carving it just to make a little step stool so you can get the high-level concept off the shelf and, seriously, who has time for that? Sometimes I really envy scientists in the major disciplines  because everyone already knows the basics of what they study. Imagine that you’re a geneticist, but before you can tell people you look at DNA, you have to convince them that sexual reproduction exists. I dream of the day when every graduating high school senior will know IPA. (That’s the international phonetic alphabet, not the beer.)

Okay, off the soapbox.

Helping people. Linguistics has lots and lots and lots of applications. (I’m just going to talk about my little sub-field here, so know that there’s a lot of stuff being left unsaid.) The biggest problem is that so few people know that linguistics is a thing. We can and want to help!

  • Foreign language teaching. (AKA applied linguistics) This one is a particular pet peeve of mine. How many of you have taken a foreign language class and had the instructor tell you something about a sound in the language, like: “It’s between a “k” and a “g” but more like the “k” except different.” That crap is not helpful. Particularly if the instructor is a native speaker of the language, they’ll often just keep telling you that you’re doing it wrong without offering a concrete way to make it correctly. Fun fact: There is an entire field dedicated to accurately describing the sounds of the world’s languages. One good class on phonetics and suddenly you have a concrete description of what you’re supposed to be doing with your mouth and the tools to tell when you’re doing it wrong. On the plus side, a lot language teachers are starting to incorporate linguistics into their curriculum with good results.
  • Speech recognition and speech synthesis. So this is an area that’s a little more difficult. Most people working on these sorts of projects right now are computational people and not linguists. There is a growing community of people who do both (UW offers a masters degree in computational linguistics that feeds lots of smart people into Seattle companies like Microsoft and Amazon, for example) but there’s definite room for improvement. The main tension is the fact that using linguistic models instead of statistical ones (though some linguistic models are statistical) hugely increases the need for processing power. The benefit is that accuracy  tends to increase. I hope that, as processing power continues to be easier and cheaper to access, more linguistics research will be incorporated into these applications. Fun fact: In computer speech recognition, an 80% comprehension accuracy rate in conversational speech is considered acceptable. In humans, that’s grounds to test for hearing or brain damage.
  • Speech pathology. This is a great field and has made and continues to make extensive use of linguistic research. Speech pathologists help people with speech disorders overcome them, and the majority of speech pathologists have an undergraduate degree in linguistics and a masters in speech pathology. Plus, it’s a fast-growing career field with a good outlook.  Seriously, speech pathology is awesome. Fun fact: Almost half of all speech pathologists work in school environments, helping kids with speech disorders. That’s like the antithesis of a mad scientist, right there.

And that’s why you should care. Linguistics helps us learn about ourselves and help people, and what else could you ask for in a scientific discipline? (Okay, maybe explosions and mutant sharks, but do those things really help humanity?)

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2 responses

  1. Pingback: How do you pronounce Gangnam? |

  2. Pingback: Five tips for your first linguistics class* |

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