What’s a linguist?

When I tell people I’m studying linguistics, I often hear two common misconceptions about what linguists do and who we are:

1) a polyglot, i.e. someone who speaks many languages
ex:  “Oh, so how many languages do you speak?”  “What language do you study?”

OR, my other favorite

2) a structural linguist, a la Chomsky
ex:  “How interesting!  I love Chomsky, especially his more political writings… wow, you must be really smart.”

I’ll give these folks some credit — linguists are interested in language and more than likely know a thing or two about Chomsky.  But linguists come in all shapes in sizes, like economists, doctors, and pretty much every profession or academic discipline.  For those who are more visually oriented, please see this quick and fun slideshow that synthesizes how myself and other sociolinguists answer the question, “What is a linguist?”  I once heard someone refer to linguists as naturally-inclined puzzle solvers, so perhaps we can try to start to thinking about linguists as “language scientists.”

At Georgetown, my stripe of linguistics is of the “socio” variety, i.e. sociolinguistics, which includes analytic approaches such as (critical, mediated, political, or regular ole’) discourse analysis, variation analysis, and ethnography.    As a person, I’ve always considered myself to be more on the “applied” side of things (hence the anti-“knowledge-for-knowledge’s-sake” spiel you might have read in my introduction).  Here’s where it gets confusing, since applied linguistics is the subfield that deals with linguistic applications in the education sector.  I care about education, but about a lot of other things more, which is what I can do as a sociolinguist.  But in particular, I care about the immigrant community, about progressive politics, and how linguistic research can benefit and enhance the two.

So don’t think of me as a grammar Nazi, think of me as a language hippie!

Language ideologies, profiling and discrimination

As a biracial, 2nd generation American growing up in an urban setting, I was raised in a multilingual home and grew comfortable speaking Hungarian with one grandma, Spanish with another, and a mix with my own parents.  But outside of the home, I noticed some people weren’t as understanding about my lifestyle and upbringing.  I noticed people had things to say about immigrants — and not very nice ones.  I was told my parents had an accent.  Huh?  The older I got, the more hateful I understood the rhetoric to be.  Racist, xenophobic, jingoistic, ignorant, plain and simple. And it wasn’t just people I knew, it was coming from all angles — politicians, journalists, and other powerful, important figures that people listened to.   These people had the power to determine policy and impact my life and everyone around me.

Thankfully I had the opportunity to get my BA in hegemony studies.  Not really, but that’s what it felt like.  Actually I studied linguistic anthropology, and there I thrived on any reading materials I could get my hands on to get beyond the everyday ideologies about language, immigrants — and get the “real deal” from people who knew their stuff.  My roles models became people like Foucault, Duranti, and my own advisor Dr. Pagliai, who studied racist ideologies from a linguistic anthropological framework — and get this, she got paid to do it!

Here are some of the readings/articles/books that I loved then as much as I do now, my go-to reading list for anyone interested in the prevalent, yet unexamined beliefs about languages, dialects, and their speakers.  If you think other people have an accent, but you don’t or that you can “tell” someone’s race or ethnicity by the sound of their voice, then this is for you.

1)  Lippi-Green, Rosina.  1997.  English with An Accent: Language, ideology and discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.

What I love so much about this book is that it shows that you don’t need a PhD to understand linguistic insights.  English with an Accent is a highly accessible reader that, for starters, topples down the most common myths about language.  What’s the difference between a language and a dialect?  Is Ebonics bad English?  Is there such a thing as bad English?  She provides readers with the tools to understand language and variation, and the ability to distinguish between language ideologies (beliefs about language) from data-driven, empirically-proven, insights on language from the people who’ve been doing this for a living.  Through various case studies, she also provides compelling demonstrations of how institutions capitalize on linguistic ideologies (via “language subordination”) to create and perpetuate inequalities and prejudice in various social arenas (public schools, children’s movies, employment).  A must-read for educators, parents, policy makers and the public at large, IMHO.

2)  Urciuoli, Bonnie.  1996.  Exposing Prejudice: Puerto Rican experiences of language, race, and class.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Despite being an older publication, the insights Urciuoli provides in this book remain relevant today and extremely helpful as a guide in understanding how immigrant communities are racialized/otherized/marked through a complex conflation of language, class, and race.  Taking an ethnographic approach, she explains how Nuyoricans are stigmatized seemingly on the basis of their linguistic makeup (unabashed codeswitching, Latino English dialect, etc), but covertly on the basis of cultural constructions of race and class — what Urciuoli calls “race-marking mapped onto language behavior.”  In this longitudinal study she shows how a stigmatized identity results in a “glass ceiling” of sorts, whereby New York Puerto Ricans are routinely and systematically denied access to positions of power in society.  A must-read for Newt Gingriches everywhere.

3)  Baugh, John.  2006.  Linguistic profiling.  Black Linguistics: Language, society and politics in Africa and the Americas, ed. by Sinfree Makoni, 155-168.

Like racial profiling (alive and well in legislation like Arizona’s SB1070 despite civil rights laws that clearly denounce the practice), linguistic profiling refers to the practice of judging speakers identity, competence, intellect (and on) based on features of their spoken language.  A ubiquitous phenomenon in the life of a public school kid in DC, “you sound White,” “stop talking Black” could be heard through the halls and packed a heavy socio-politico-ideological punch with every utterance.  John Baugh’s study, beyond being an interesting research project on a hot-button issue, has been invaluable in “real-world” applications: namely, fair housing advocacy work that works to eliminate civil rights discrimination and civil rights enforcement and compliance more generally.  While admitting (albeit reluctantly) that linguistic profiling might be a natural human inclination based on its prevalence throughout antiquity, he argues that people can and should be more mindful about their own prejudices and stereotypes, and to strive toward higher tolerance of speakers with backgrounds different than their own.