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!