How to Read a Linguistics Article in 8 Easy Steps

Disclaimer: this mostly applies to experimental or quantitative articles, since those are what are common in my field. Your milage, especially in more formal fields like syntax or semantics, may vary dramatically.


Ok, so you’re not a professional linguist or anything, but you’ve come across an article in a linguistics journal and it sounds interesting. Or maybe you’ve just taken your first linguistics class and you heard about something really cool you want to learn more about. But when you start reading you’re quickly swamped by terms you don’t understand, IPA symbols you’ve never seen before and all sorts of statistics. You’re tempted to just throw in the towel.

Girl in the Library (3638661587)

Don’t panic! I’m here to help you out with Rachael’s patented* guide to reading linguistics articles.

The first thing to do is take a deep breath and accept that you may not understand everything right away. That’s ok! If you could easily read scientific literature in a field it would mean you were already an expert. Academic writing is designed to be read by other academics, and so it’s full of terms that have very specific meanings in the field. It’s a sort of time-saving code and it takes time to learn. Don’t beat yourself up for being at the beginning of your journey!

With that in mind, here’s the steps I like to follow when I’m starting a new article, especially if it’s in a field I’m less familiar with.

  1. Read the abstract. This will give you a broad outline of what the paper will be about and help you know if the whole article would be interesting or relevant for you.
  2. I like to call this the “sandwich step”. I read the introduction and then the conclusion. Why? Again, this gives me idea about what will be in the article. Sure, there may be spoilers, but knowing the answer will make it easier to understand how questions were asked.
    1. Notice any new terms that are both in the introduction and the abstract but don’t get explained? This might be a good time to look them up, since the author might be assuming you already know about it.
    2. Some places to look up terms:
      1. The SIL linguistics glossary can be a good place to start.
      2. Linguistics topics on Wikipedia are also a good choice. Linguists even get together at professional events to edit and add to linguistics-related pages.
      3. For a bit more in-depth introduction, Language and Linguistics Compass publishes short articles written by experts that are designed to be introductions to whatever topic they’re on.
  3. Flip through and look for any charts or figures and read their captions. These will be where the author(s) highlight their results. Now that you have a general idea about what’s going on you’ll have a better chance of interpreting these.
  4. Next, read the background section. This is where the author will talk about things that other people have done and how thier work fits in to the big picture of the field. This is the second place you’re likely to find new terms you’re unfamiliar with. If they’re only used once or twice, don’t worry about looking them up. Your aim is to understand the general thrust of the article, not every little detail! (Now, if you’re a grad student, on the other hand… 😉 )
  5. Now read the methods section. You can probably skim this; unless you’re interested in replicating the study or reviewing its merit you’re not going to have to have a full grasp of all the nitty-gritty nuances of item design and participant recruitment.
  6. Finally read the results. Unless you have some stats background, you’re probably safe in skipping over the statistical analyses. Again, you just want to understand the general point.
  7. Extra credit: Go back and read the abstract again. This is a very condensed version of what was in the article and is a good way to review/check your understanding.
  8. Sit back and enjoy having read a linguistics article!

Grats on making it through! Now that you’ve caught the bug, what are some ways to find more stuff to read?

  • Go find one of the articles referenced in the one you just read. Since you’re already familiar with similar work, you’ll probably have an easier time understanding the new article.
  • Or read something more recent that cites the article you’ve read. You can look up articles that cite the one you’ve read on Google Scholar, as this video explains.
  • Look up other issues of the journal your paper was in. Most journals publish in a pretty narrow range of topics so you’ll have a leg up on understanding the new articles.
  • Ask a linguist! We’re a friendly bunch and pretty responsive to e-mail. You might even see if you can find the contact info of the author(s) of the article you read to ask them for suggestions for other stuff to read.

I hope this has been helpful and piqued your interest about diving into linguistics research. Now get out there are get reading!

*Not actually patented.

Why can you mumble “good morning” and still be understood?

I got an interesting question on Facebook a while ago and though it might be a good topic for a blog post:

I say “good morning” to nearly everyone I see while I’m out running. But I don’t actually say “good”, do I? It’s more like “g’ morning” or “uh morning”. Never just morning by itself, and never a fully articulated good. Is there a name for this grunt that replaces a word? Is this behavior common among English speakers, only southeastern speakers, or only pre-coffee speakers?

This sort of thing is actually very common in speech, especially in conversation. (Or “in the wild” as us laboratory types like to call it.) The fancy-pants name for it is “hypoarticulation”. That’s less (hypo) speech-producing movements of the mouth and throat (articulation). On the other end of the spectrum you have “hyperarticulation” where you very. carefully. produce. each. individual. sound.

Ok, so you can change how much effort you put into producing speech sounds, fair enough. But why? Why don’t we just sort of find a happy medium and hang out there? Two reasons:

  1. Humans are fundamentally lazy. To clarify: articulation costs energy, and energy is a limited resource. More careful articulation also takes more time, which, again, is a limited resource. So the most efficient speech will be very fast and made with very small articulator movements. Reducing the word “good” to just “g” or “uh” is a great example of this type of reduction.
  2. On the other hand, we do want to communicate clearly. As my advisor’s fond of saying, we need exactly enough pointers to get people to the same word we have in mind. So if you point behind someone and say “er!” and it could be either a tiger or a bear, that’s not very helpful. And we’re very aware of this in production: there’s evidence that we’re more likely to hyperarticulate words that are harder to understand.

So we want to communicate clearly and unambiguously, but with as little effort as possible. But how does that tie in with this example? “G” could be “great” or “grass” or “génial “, and “uh” could be any number of things. For this we need to look outside the linguistic system.

The thing is, language is a social activity and when we’re using language we’re almost always doing so with other people. And whenever we interact with other people, we’re always trying to guess what they know. If we’re pretty sure someone can get to the word we mean with less information, for example if we’ve already said it once in the conversation, then we will expend less effort in producing the word. These contexts where things are really easily guessable are called “low entropy“. And in a social context like jogging past someone in the morning, phrases liked “good morning” have very low entropy. Much lower than, for example “Could you hand me that pickle?”–if you jogged past someone  and said that you’d be very likely to hyperarticulate to make sure they understood.