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Dinali

You're a linguist? So how many languages do you speak?

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Hehe. The question we've all answered a million times. Deep breath, launch into rote response "Linguistics isn't really about speaking a lot of languages, it's the study of blah blah etc."

My favorite moment related to this was in France. I studied at Bordeaux 3, taking their third year linguistics courses. I was with a group of other students, and one asked me what I studied in the US. Linguistiques, I replied. She immediately asked the above question. Before I could say anything, one of my French classmates rolled his eyes, took a breath, and launched into that exact speech, in French, that he'd given a million times. That's when I realized how small our field was.

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I've tried out a lot of responses to this question, and I usually go with "linguistics is the study of people's ability to use language." Of course, this gives the wrong idea sometimes as well. I don't think there's any perfect one-line response.

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I'm at the point where I think the Bachelor's degree basically IS just fully defining linguistics. I know people who didn't even really grasp the concept after completing Intro to Linguistics (and doing well).

Of course, one of my favorite explanations of the university system is:

I went to university until I thought I knew something about my subject. They gave me a Bachelor's. Then I went some more until I thought I knew everything about the subject, and they gave me a Master's. I went to school some more until one day, I realized that I knew NOTHING about the subject at all. That day they gave me a PhD.

(paraphrased, and I don't know the source. Sorry)

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It's not the best metaphor by any means, but I used to explain it to people by equating language learning vs. linguistics to music performance vs. music theory - one is the act of doing the thing, and the other is studying the mechanisms behind it. Now I've gotten lazy, and a simple "I study how language works" usually works for the uninterested. Those that are interested, I'm happy to share more with!

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*waves* hello fellow linguists! I didn't know there were so many of us on thegradcafe. Any semanticists around?

Here's a twist that only works for Hebrew (my native language): the word for linguistics and the word for detective-work are very similar, so when you tell people you study linguistics they will sometimes reply--oh, so you want to work for the police after you graduate? At this point I actually prefer the how-many-languages-do-you-speak response, I sound a lot less cynical answering it :-P

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Funny...

I don't think I've ever been asked this question...

now's time to suspect myself as an Linguist. :o

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Either that or you're just very lucky!

I usually tell people, "It's not about learning a lot of languages, necessarily; it's more the scientific study of how language works in general." Then I reel off a list of eight or nine subdisciplines until the other person looks totally bewildered. Problem solved!

Then again, when non-linguists do know what linguistics is, it's sometimes because of an unpleasant encounter with it in the past. One time when I was in twelfth grade, for instance, I ran into my sixth-grade computer-applications teacher, who asked me what I was planning to major in once at university. I told him. He winced and said, "Linguistics was the hardest course I ever took in university." I laughed with him and secretly bit my lip. Fortunately, he didn't scare me off!

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I ran into my sixth-grade computer-applications teacher, who asked me what I was planning to major in once at university. I told him. He winced and said, "Linguistics was the hardest course I ever took in university." I laughed with him and secretly bit my lip. Fortunately, he didn't scare me off!

I've had a lot of people [non-linguists who took a linguistics class] say the same thing. It also reminds me of the first ling class, Intro to Linguistics, which is a prereq for ling courses and major and also satisfies a GE at UCLA. When I took it, there were about 100 people at the beginning of the course. By the third week, it was down to 35. But several of the non-ling who stuck it out ended up changing their majors.

I think it's got to do with the same confusion of placement we encountered in this forum. It's a rigorous science hidden in a humanities department. People take it expecting something like English and instead get physics and biology and statistics. For some this is their niche. The rest run screaming.

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I heard that linguistics is the most-dropped major at UCLA (or in the College of Letters and Science or whatever you call it there). Do you know if this is true?

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I heard that linguistics is the most-dropped major at UCLA (or in the College of Letters and Science or whatever you call it there). Do you know if this is true?

I don't know. I haven't heard that, and when I was there the class size was pretty stable.

What DOES happen is that ling is the most combined major there. Not as in double majors, but as in Spanish and Linguistics, Linguistics and Spanish (yes, both!), Linguistics and Psychology, etc. One of the reasons for this is that following one of these combined majors relieves you from having to take one of the very difficult advanced courses in Syntax or Phonology. IF changing a major from pure Ling to Ling and XXX counts as dropping the major, then yes, I totally believe it. (For the record, I'm pure Ling and aced both courses : )

(to see how ridiculous it is, go here: http://www.registrar.ucla.edu/catalog/catalog08-09-3.htm#50532359_marker-30547 and do a search, see how many times Linguistics comes up.)

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I think it's got to do with the same confusion of placement we encountered in this forum. It's a rigorous science hidden in a humanities department. People take it expecting something like English and instead get physics and biology and statistics. For some this is their niche. The rest run screaming.

That's a good point, and one I hadn't really thought of. A lot of people have wondered why I was never an English major - I'm a major bookworm, love weird/obscure words, and am really into writing as well - but I'd usually just say, "English isn't geeky enough for me, darn it!" It was meant to be facetious; in fact, it was only several months after I started telling people this that I realised how true it was. Linguistics strikes a perfect balance of logical and creative, which is something I gradually discovered that I needed.

What DOES happen is that ling is the most combined major there. Not as in double majors, but as in Spanish and Linguistics, Linguistics and Spanish (yes, both!), Linguistics and Psychology, etc. One of the reasons for this is that following one of these combined majors relieves you from having to take one of the very difficult advanced courses in Syntax or Phonology. IF changing a major from pure Ling to Ling and XXX counts as dropping the major, then yes, I totally believe it. (For the record, I'm pure Ling and aced both courses : )

(to see how ridiculous it is, go here: http://www.registrar.ucla.edu/catalog/catalog08-09-3.htm#50532359_marker-30547 and do a search, see how many times Linguistics comes up.)

Whoa. I'm all for interdisciplinary studies, but that's nuts!

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I got that question a few times and never really answered it well. My favorite is when I launched into a ten-minute discussion (or maybe lecture? I hope not) with my fianc

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I think I may've found the best answer to this question. I'm at a conference at the University of Arizona, and on their department T-shirts is a cartoon that goes like this:

Person A: So, what's your major?

Person B: Botany, what's yours?

A: Linguistics.

B: So, how many languages do you know?

A: *@!

A: How many plants do you know?

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I think I may've found the best answer to this question. I'm at a conference at the University of Arizona, and on their department T-shirts is a cartoon that goes like this:

Person A: So, what's your major?

Person B: Botany, what's yours?

A: Linguistics.

B: So, how many languages do you know?

A: *@!

A: How many plants do you know?

I really like this one, I'm going to work this into the conversation next time I encounter the question again.

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I like the cartoon t-shirt idea, but if you are feeling particularly snarky, 'more than you' is usually sufficient. :wink:

Otherwise, proceed directly to the 'scientific study of how language works, rather than learning languages themselves' lecture, tack on an impressive list of languages you have some familiarity with, and presto: someone else who now thinks you are a very clever dork.

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I just realized that if I go to Hopkins I'll never have to deal with this question again, assuming no one asks a cognitive scientist how many languages they speak.

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And yet you'll still have to endlessly explain, over and over, what "cognitive science" is...of course it would help if the discipline itself had a good answer for that first!

I had fun explaining today to some parents of a potential anthropology major what "linguistic anthropology" is. I hope I didn't get too carried away.

And I like the UArizona shirt idea, although I'd prefer "You're a psychologist? How many neuroses do you have?"

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And I like the UArizona shirt idea, although I'd prefer "You're a psychologist? How many neuroses do you have?"

Nice. Also: "You're a doctor? How many diseases do you have?"

"You're a librarian? How many books have you read?"

"You're a cop? How many guns can you shoot?"

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Oh, this thread gave me a good chuckle. It sounds like linguist conversations are much like social psychologist conversations:

P: "Oh, so you study psychology. You're analyzing me right now, right? Wondering what kind of mental disorder I have?"

Me: "No, not at all. I'm not a clinician or therapist. I study social psychology -- not abnormal -- and plan to become a researcher on stereotyping processes."

P: "Uh huh. Well, I've got this friend who's been really depressed lately..."

I think I'm just going to say I'm a CPA from now on. NO ONE asks any further questions of them.

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