Non-Linguists, Please Stop Trying to Do or Talk About Linguistics Without the Help of Actual Linguists

Ben Zimmer has a wonderful article on “When physicists do linguistics” over at the Boston Globe, which can perhaps be best summarized by this comic from xkcd:

Joking aside, I am happy that other disciplines have an interest in language – however, I hate when other disciplines try to do linguistic research and fail because they do not involve any actual linguists in the research. I agree completely when Zimmer says that there is a “need for better communication between disciplines that previously had little to do with each other.” Communication among related fields could use a little boost too, because it isn’t just physicists who publish papers that contradict linguistic research. Psychologists, speech pathologists, and cognitive scientists have been doing it wrong for a while too, especially when it comes to multilingual and cultural aspects of language acquisition.

Linguistics seems to the be the field that everyone thinks they can do without any special training. Most people wouldn’t think of talking about chemistry or mathematics without actually having studied those subjects. Yet everyone seems to think they are experts on language simply because they speak a language (their native language) or because they have learned another language. Sorry, but those abilities do not make you a qualified linguist nor do they give you the right to talk about language without checking facts or to teach language as if you were an experienced teacher. I know how to drive a car, but I don’t go around pretending to be a certified mechanic or give advice to others on how to fix their own cars.

Robert Lane Greene’s book, You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, is about this phenomenon. People believe, and repeat, such ridiculous things as “this language has eleventy billion words for X” or “this language is primitive but that language is logical” all the time. Even worse, respected authors repeat these myths in their articles and books, such as Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue, and so they are repeated again and again without anyone questioning whether they are true or not. These myths are dangerous because a lot of them are based on ethnocentrism and the perceived superiority of the way we speak compared to everyone else.

Please, do yourself a favor and study language seriously instead of repeating myths. Talk to actual linguists, read books written by actual linguists or whose authors talked to actual linguists. In addition to You Are What You Speak, you can start with Language Myths (for a general overview), Vocabulary Myths (for language learners/teachers, which I previously posted about), and the “truth-squad” blog Language Log. But most importantly, always question what is written about language even if it is published by best-selling authors or academic researchers because they may not be linguists at all.

Update 26/02/13: And another one! Ugh. “Why speaking English can make you poor when you retire” about research done by a behavioural economist. Hey, that’s not linguistics! ::sigh:: At least the article quotes my hero, John McWhorter.

Update 15/03/15: So glad I’m not the only one who complains about this: If you’re not a linguist, don’t do linguistic research by @EvilJoeMcVeigh

  • so true, so true! as a french teacher, in the middle school, i can’t even begin to get into the finer points of linguistics but when kids fuss about something being SO HARD in french, i try to illustrate something equally SO HARD in english and remind them that the more they use it, the simpler it will become. then there are all those adults who love to tell me they to X number of years of french and can’t speak a word of it! they say it so proudly! shame on them for broadcasting it and shame on their awful teachers for allowing them to hate learning the language.

    • I’ve never understood why people like to admit that they basically wasted years of their lives NOT learning something. It really is as if they are proud of it. I just don’t get it!

  • Agreed, like I said in my tweet to you, one of my pet peeves is language learners/nerds calling themselves “linguists”–if you call yourself a “linguist” you better have at least a masters degree (really more like a PhD as linguists are usually academics and working successfully in academia typically requires a PhD) in linguistics and you better do this for a living, otherwise you’re not.


    • Yes, I don’t like when language learners use “linguist” in that way either! It’s almost as bad as the use of “dialect” to indicate an inferior or incorrect variety of a language (which true linguists know do not exist). That’s why I try not to use that word anymore. So many people use it in such a prejudiced way, I find it’s better to just avoid it.

  • I agree. You make a good point.

    Just to balance it out though, linguists like Chomsky have been masquerading as experts and interfering in other fields as well.

    • I definitely agree that it happens in other fields as well. It’s just that it’s more prevalent in linguistics since everybody seems to think they can research language – with absolutely no linguistic training – simply because they speak a language.

  • Carole Chaski PhD

    Thank you, thank you for such a well-written and even charming exposition of this sad fact about linguistics. I am trying my best to do the same in my LinkedIn Group Forensic Linguistic Evidence; I invite you to join, as the field of forensic linguistics is sorely in need of well-trained –dare I say “real” –linguists, since it reflects exactly the situation you describe.

    • Hi Carole, thanks for the info on forensic linguistics. I actually haven’t read much about that subfield but I am interested in learning more about it. I’ll check out the group on LinkedIn.

  • Chris Holt

    I agree with you, but maybe the linguistics field needs to do a better job with its own communication. It might need some outreach help. I’ve never read a commentary like this on the subject.

    I would be interested in seeing a follow-up entry giving examples to illustrate this point. I understand that linguistics is far more complex than most people realize, but I can’t articulate why. What about it don’t people understand?

    • John McWhorter and David Crystal write a lot about this, and other authors who are not necessarily linguists, like Greene and Steven Pinker, have also popularized linguistics lately. I think it’s less than people don’t understand language – it’s more that they’d rather believe things that aren’t true and repeat myths without checking facts, especially when it comes to the supposed superiority of their language over another or the so-called exoticness of foreign languages.

    • Mohammed Tate

      The answer to your question is very simple.Before trying to start a research related to linguistics (as in any dicipline) you are required to possess some prerequisites.For example;you cannot analyse the syntax of a language without knowing first something about syntax’ history and theories and then choose and cite the approach you are going to follow etc.

  • Motorshack

    In my line of work – software design – I am very heavily dependent on feedback from the end users. Although they are not usually computer experts, they are still often in a very good position to see errors that I might have overlooked. So, I don’t dare to ignore the comments of amateurs, even though that may mean plowing through any number vacuous observations. More generally, I am reluctant to tell people they can’t comment unless they have academic qualifications. That would create the real risk the a good idea might be lost, simply because it did not come from a conventional place.

    Also, if I recall correctly, Jakob Grimm’s day jobs were in law, diplomacy, and administration, and his degree was in law. So, should we ignore Grimm’s Law?

    My point here is not to be snarky, but just to say that every idea deserves honest testing, and if some people insist on repeating old canards that just means they might still have something to learn – or possibly that they are actually coming at an old idea from a fresh angle. It may be tiresome to sort that out, but it is also just the normal cost of doing business in the marketplace of ideas.

  • Ekaterina Kandelaki

    The title caught my attention, then I read the comments and I must say I did not expect so much judgment and prejudice. Some people may be using the word “linguistics” wrongly, they may in fact mean “language” or only “grammar, or only “semantics” etc., but I do not think individuals should be judged because of this, on contrary, they should be encouraged to explore, research and read more. Even if someone is not professional, this does not mean they do not notice things/ language behavior, they do and try to figure out what those things are, this way they create their own reality, in which they may be wrong, but at least they are trying. Instead of telling them off not to talk about linguistics because they are not professionals, maybe we should give them the answers they are looking for. They will listen if explained nicely and appropriately and if the time does not allow it, then give them the reference for reading. Everybody has the right to talk about any type of science even if they are wrong. This is how we all learn.