The Perils and Pleasures of Studying Linguistics
As a university student, I am very often asked the classic ice-breaker question of “what subject do you study?”. My answer is always the same: “linguistics”, I say – knowing that the response will likely be a series of blank faces – before quipping, “yeah, I don’t really know what it is either”.
This usually receives a few chuckles, but fundamentally it isn’t a joke. I honestly couldn’t put the concept of linguistics into words and trust that I have done it justice. I don’t think anyone could. Even the typical slogans that universities give for it such as “it’s the science of language” or “it’s the study of why we communicate” have never quite been able to cover what linguistics involves.
Unfortunately, that means that people often don’t get to hear just how wonderful and fascinating linguistics can be as a subject, and so they miss out on the chance to study it at university. I want that to change, which is why I’m here today. In this blog I plan to outline all the reasons why everyone – including you – could find a love in linguistics, whilst also giving you a few helpful warnings along the way.
Let’s start off with a warning. If you are currently studying at pre-university level and are looking for some introductory reading to teach you the fundamentals of linguistics, then you’re out of luck. Linguistics is such a small subject, and the only people who are knowledgeable enough to write about it in detail are high-level academics, who tend to write their textbooks, dissertations and papers with people who have already studied high-level linguistics in mind.
This means that they very rarely take the time to explain any of the terminology they use, no matter how complex it might be. However, this shouldn’t be a reason to give up on linguistics. Most of this scary terminology is actually quite simple to learn. Ultimately, if you study linguistics, you will learn a lot of it without even realising. Also, there are still some good texts that definitely work to explain linguistics to a less-experienced audience; they can just be quite hard to find if you don’t know where to look (I highly recommend The Language Instinct by Stephen Pinker as a starting place).
Anyway, let’s move on to discuss some of the reasons why someone should study linguistics. As I mentioned earlier, most people haven’t got the foggiest idea of what linguistics actually is, which often leads them to think that they have no interest in it. Instead, people are drawn towards university subjects that they have been able to study at GCSE and A Level because they already know that they have a love for it. However, I can almost guarantee that any subject – including those which you might have already decided to continue at university – will have a link to linguistics in some way.
This is because linguistics is such a broad area of study, which pulls on techniques and content from practically every other university course. Therefore, you are bound to find a love in some specialised area of linguistics, no matter what subject you find interesting at the moment. Don’t believe me? Here are just a few tasks from linguistic studies that are inherently linked to other subjects:
– Using historical evidence to back track through time towards the origin of language (HISTORY).
– Analysing why socio-economic and geographical factors can affect the way we use speech (GEOGRAPHY).
– Using anatomical knowledge of our mouth, vocal cords and the brain to establish how and why language is formed (BIOLOGY).
– Understanding the acoustics of speech (PHYSICS).
– Comparing the structural processing of language and music – this happens to be my dissertation topic of choice (MUSIC).
– Extrapolating experimental data to create psychological models that represent word-recognition in the mind (PSYCHOLOGY).
– Using the same models to code a program that can comprehend and respond to language, such as Alexa or Siri (COMPUTER SCIENCE).
Need I go on?
One final, wonderful thing about studying linguistics is that the topic is so vital to understanding how and why we do everything in our daily lives. Communication and language are the tools we use to achieve almost every single task that we are given. This, in turn, means that – and I cannot stress this enough – YOU WILL ALWAYS HAVE A PARTY TRICK if you study linguistics.
Hear me out.
People’s lives are centred around language, and so they will constantly say things like “I wonder where that word comes from” or “isn’t it interesting that I can know how your sentence is going to finish before you say it”. If you study linguistics then you can always provide an explanation for all this. In fact, if you can add a bit of wit into it then linguistics can make you into a permanently sophisticated and interesting person to have around. If that isn’t a good reason to study linguistics, then I don’t know what is.