Some misc comments on linguists and linguistics

I have rather a lot of comments on the discussion to this post, so I’m moving them to their own post here. To be honest, I’m quite surprised that the commenters have such a negative view of linguistics as a science. Just because a lot of what linguists do is not relevant to language pedagogy, is that any reason to a) write it off as a subject, and b) be ignorant of the parts of the subject that are relevant to the subject? After all, we don’t write off string theory because it isn’t relevant to bridge building (whereas other aspects of mathematics are).

First, to Steve Kaufmann’s most recent comment:
OK, I think we are talking at cross-purposes. I did not dispute the difference between sense 1 and 2 of ‘linguist’. I was asking whether you accepted both senses of the definition, since your comments implied that you didn’t.

Sure, a site that has explanations in 10 languages could be said to be linguistically friendly to the people who speak those languages, but your registration page is aggressively monolingual and English-oriented, even in the non-English versions (I read the French, Japanese and German versions). That was specifically what I was commenting on.

You have a rather rosy view of how much effect linguists have in First Nations communities, and you obviously don’t have any experience of the dynamics of an outsider linguist coming into a community. If you’re looking for reasons why a language doesn’t get passed on, believe me, the linguist is a non-factor. No one listens to the linguist or takes any notice of them! Quite often in endangered language communities the linguist only comes in when the language is already not being passed on (for all sorts of reasons).

Thanks for the explanation of the method you’re advocating- it’s much clearer now (and familiar to me from the work of Rod Ellis, for example). I have no quarrel with the method in principle (it’s similar to the one I used when teaching ESL at Harvard, for example), just in its application in some circumstances.

Finally, you’ve completely misunderstood my point about grammar. I never said anything about the deliberate study of grammar rules. I meant that part of ‘getting the words and phrases right’, as you put it, implies a control (implicitly or explicitly) of the morphology and syntax of the language. For example, it’s impossible to speak English correctly without ‘knowing’ at some level that the house is a well-formed phrase, but house the isn’t. Some people acquire that knowledge through being taught it, others intuit it through what they see in the language they’re exposed to.
Anti-linguist experts. You’re incorrect in claiming that we learn our native languages by reading and listening. Reading is truly a secondary medium of language transmission. Kids know a huge amount about their native language before they can read, and kids who can’t read still learn language. For most of human history, languages have not been written down, and this has had no effect on language acquisition. [This is, incidentally, a good example of what I mentioned in the first paragraph about parts of linguistics which are relevant to language learning.]
Don’t blame linguists for fill-in-the-blank exercises – that’s still part of language pedagogy. That’s not what academic linguits do. And I don’t see what’s “scary” about terms like allophone or collocation. Why are they scarier words than, say, infringement or arthritis or companion? Why do you think that when someone is trying to master a concept not naming that concept makes it any easier to understand?

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11 responses to “Some misc comments on linguists and linguistics

  1. By and large this last comment is carefully reasoned, makes sense and is quite different in tone from the first two largely illogical Ang’goon attacks on me, the “pop linguist”. ( I am not sure if the reference to “pop” was a slight on my advanced age and I reserve the right to take it up with a human rights tribunal as being an “ageist” remark).

    I find little to disagree with here without nitpicking or rehashing old arguments.

  2. I’m extremely surprised about the anti-linguist-in-the-second-sense sentiments as well. For me, as someone who is trained in linguistics, an approach that takes this into account works extremely well for me. I firmly believe that I had an easier time than my classmates in various language classes I’ve taken since learning linguistic theory because I was able to categorize things I was learning in historical context (matching new vocab to known cognates or IE roots, for instance) and in typological context (aha, this is their ergative split, etc.) Of course, other language learners with different backgrounds are going to find that kind of information superfluous and/or confusing. It’s like telling somebody about the shape of an object — if they’re a mathematician, an equation is going to help them visualize the object, but it will probably just confuse me.

  3. I can’t believe I’m bothering to defend myself against this, but I guess I’d better. It was pretty clear that I meant ‘pop linguist’ in the sense it usually has, i.e. popular linguist. cf.

    “pop linguist Deborah Tannen”

    “pop linguist George Lakoff

    “Pop linguist Bill Bryson”

    “pop linguist Steve Pinker”

    Furthermore, in Australian English (which I am clearly a speaker of) ‘pop’ does not have this sense. It never occurred to me. This gambit would seem to me to be the last refuge of someone who cannot bring himself to admit an error.

  4. Re ‘pop”, I thought Australians had a sense of humour.

    Re “error”, I guess this is your term for a point of view that is different from yours.

  5. Claire, you’re being extremely civil, which is nice, but the discussion is pretty much a waste of time: Steve is interested only in promoting his commercial website and clearly knows nothing about linguistics and is not interested in learning. I don’t know why it surprises anyone that lots of people are prejudiced against linguistics-the-science; people tend to have a negative attitude towards things they don’t understand, and most people are exposed to linguistics only through the sneers of “grammarians” who think linguists are responsible for the “degeneration of language.” This is why I’m delighted to see Language Log acquire such a wide readership, and why I hope their book sells well enough to put a dent in the general ignorance. Linguistics is both fun and practical (the useful language courses of today grow directly out of the programs developed by American linguists for the military during WWII), but it’s not easy getting the message out.

  6. Given the tone of your previous posts and subsequent sentence, you’ll forgive me for ruling out the humerous reading. If Australians have a reputation for a sense of humour, North Americans stereotypically have a penchant for litigation.

    The “error” I was thinking of was that you seemed to misunderstand my argument about what grammar/syntax is (which isn’t an opinion of mine, by the way – it’s an argument from semantics and a tradition that goes back to Panini). Now, as to whether it’s my opinion versus yours that you understood me, that brings us into arguments about the philosophy of language that are beyond the scope of a) this comment, and b) this blog.

  7. To jump into the fray and go off on a complete tangent at the same time, what makes Steven Pinker a pop linguist? Is it because he writes books for lay people?

    He seems to be to linguistics what Douglas Hofstadter is to computer science. Hofstadter has excellent academic credentials, but he is best known for writing for lay people. Some might describe Hofstadter as a “pop” computer scientist, but I wouldn’t choose that description, as it incorrectly implies superficiality.

    I work with computational linguists, and I’m exposed to a lot of linguistics in my job, but I don’t have an academic background in linguistics. It would be interesting to know what you think about Pinker, as I’ve found his writing interesting.

  8. Claire,

    Given the number of typos in your previous posts I will asume that when you wrote “Given the tone of your previous posts and subsequent sentence, you’ll forgive me for ruling out the humerous reading” “humerous” was a typo not a spelling mistake. ( I make both myself).
    Only a self-important “tenure tracked” morally correct intellectual like yourself would a) criticize my site for only catering to 10 languages. If we get clients primarily from those language groups plus people who can already navigate our log in page in English, we are happy.
    b) quibble about the use of the term “minor language” for Taiwanese, given that the term is relative and defined by the context.
    c) keep illogically harping on the issue of whether I recognized that there were two kinds of linguists. That much, at least should be obvious. I started with a dictionary definition that included both. I also made it clear that I was of the first kind and considered the work of the second kind to be a distraction to language learning and to be of little benefit to anyone outside the small group of government subsidized practicioners.
    d) and claim that it was illogical for me to say that it is possible to learn languages without worrying about grammatical definitions, terms like morphemes, collocations and other labels invented by linguists and others to describe the obvious.
    e) keep stressing that one can learn languages without reading, when it should be obvious that the majority of people who will get on the web to learn languages (our target) can read.
    f) really think I was going to take you to a Human Rights tribunal, that extra and useless layer of pseudo law that accepts all frivolous claims of entitlement and vicitmhood.

    Yes, Language Hat, The Linguist is a commercial site. No, I do not have the luxury of working at the expense of the tax-payers. Unless you are a volunteer, supporting your work by doing some other job, you are as mercenary as I am. IN fact you are more mercenary. It is out of my own pocket that for four years I have been funding the development of The Linguist, a learning system which takes Krashen one step closer to effective structured implementation. I have no guarantees that I will ever recover my investment let alone make a profit. I have two full time programmers and other people working to write a new systen that will work for all languages. But if I do eventually make a profit, then good! Profit pays for everything you do.
    So I appreciate you visiting my site and creating a little publicity, but I find your attitude all too typical of why I stay away from Universities.

  9. For goodnees sake:

    a) for the third or fourth time, I was criticising you for insisting on US English characters only, even in the non-English sites.
    b) I was questioning your sense of proportion.
    d) was not what I claimed at all.
    e) the majority of the world is not on the web. I was criticising your assumptions about literacy and language learning in general.
    f) I assumed that the US/Canada (unclear which jurisdiction would apply) has the Australian equivalent of a HREOC, which would be the place to raise a claim if you so wished to do so, and that was the body you meant.

    “tenure tracked morally correct intellectual” – golly. I think I just got a new subtitle for the blog…

    I think your last two paragraphs sums up why this discussion is not ever going to be fruitful. You get annoyed at academics for pointing out your mistakes, and academics get annoyed at you for either not caring whether what you say is actually factually correct (yeah I know, I keep harping on this, but much of what you seem to think is my evil liberal academic bias or something is quite well supported empirically). Academic qualifications aren’t just to get you admitted to some secret club – they do usually also teach you something about the subject. This discussion is becoming increasingly ad hominem (or, since I can’t resist it, ad mulierem (have you changed the pronouns on your republication of my posts, yet?). I am quite happy to continue this debate but it seems to be going round in cirlces.

  10. Bobala yunbala!

    Not much love in this room! :-)

    You’ve both said things that have resonated with me, but I don’t like being denigrated as a (category2)linguist. Steve, please peruse my blog, which is a personal blog that talks mostly about my work as a linguist(v.2)… I’d like to think that my existence isn’t as useless as you wish it was…

  11. [Found this site while searching for body-language information]

    Interesting though. Pop being most often associated with -music.

    That reminded me of Bob Dyan – I love his use of nasal, sliding pitches and speechlike, highly rhythmic declamatory patterns in his songs.

    Hmmm might ‘pop’ off and put him on the ‘player

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