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23 September 2014
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Why study language?
Your experience of linguistics

"I am now studying Linguistics and thoroughly enjoy the differences that are now creating American English, Australian English, and South African English. It gives new insight into the development of languages."
Nicola Johnson from Cape Town, South Africa

"Linguistics remains a pet topic for me - and it comes in handy when picking up a foreign language."
David from Glasgow

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Why study language? by Philippa Law

It's easy to think of reasons why studying language might be fun (well, I can think of plenty), but perhaps it's not so obvious why linguists' work might actually be useful too.

Peter Trudgill sees his job as providing people with true information about language, to help set aside the irrational thoughts about language that we're all prone to. "This," he says, "is important for all sorts of reasons to do with fairness, equality and even the future of humanity."

Since languages are a mark of identity and culture, they are often an issue in cases where minorities are persecuted. As long as governments continue to assert that some languages are 'not good enough', there will be an excuse to oppress the people who speak those languages. The more linguists do to highlight the misconception, hopefully the weaker those governments' claims will be.

"...student teachers judge a child's abilities on their speech more than on the strength of their schoolwork."

Understanding our own linguistic prejudices can be helpful in avoiding discrimination closer to home. Linguists have shown, for example, that student teachers judge a child's abilities on their speech more than on the strength of their schoolwork.

Had the judges in two US custody cases known what any linguist could have told them - that being bilingual isn't harmful to children - they might have acted differently. In 1995, one judge accused a mother of child abuse for talking to her 5-year-old daughter in Spanish. And as recently as 2003, another judge ordered a Hispanic father to speak mainly English to his daughter as a condition for rights to see her.

Linguists' assurances that sign languages are languages just like spoken ones has - after many centuries of discrimination - improved attitudes towards the Deaf, as well as education and facilities for Deaf people.

Studying accents and dialects can help police trace or eliminate suspects. Forensic linguists can help identify voices on tape - voice 'ageing' techniques were used to try and catch the Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer, who sent audio tapes to police claiming he was the killer.

Knowledge about normal and abnormal language helps doctors to diagnose certain illnesses, such as stroke, and to determine the nature and location of head injuries. Linguistics is playing a major part in finding out how the brain works.

Research into language has been vital to the development of new technology too. Voice recognition software, hearing aids, artificial intelligence, speech synthesis and even predictive text on mobile phones are all dependent on detailed analysis of how language works.

Linguists can help historians and archaeologists by using their knowledge of how languages typically change. Demonstrating that languages are likely to be related or have been in contact with each other can confirm theories about people's movements or behaviour in the past. Linguistics has also had an impact on the interpretation of religious texts.

Improving the standards of teaching (and foreign language teaching in particular), is one of the goals of applied linguists. A study in Northern Ireland showed that children pay more attention to things said in an accent that arouses group loyalty. That kind of observation could, for example, help schools choose the right person to lead sex education lessons.

Linguistics is also good for business. Knowing more about how different people and cultures behave in conversation can be valuable information, as it helps staff to be more accommodating towards their clients.

Your Comments
Is linguistics worth studying?

Tom from Namyslow
I just have completed linguistic studies and I appreciate this branch of science not only as a raw science but also as a life knowledge about human nature. However, I do think the major number of linguists are far from using their study knowledge at work, they rather do what they have to do as teachers or translators and not what they would like to do, solving important linguistic problems for humanity sake and for their satisfaction.

I achieved a first class degree in linguistics a few years ago and while I agree that it is a fascinating subject for study I feel obliged (for the benefit of anybody considering studying it) to confirm Andy C's comment above that it appears to provide nothing more than peripheral benefits. It's all good and fine to spend 3 years pondering over the intricacies of Chomskyan Transformational Grammar and the structure of the lexicon and its relation to the syntactical/morphological component but will it put food on the table at the end of it all? I now work as an in-house translator for a large strategic consultancy firm in Madrid and when I look at what I earn in comparison to those around me who studied bussines administration I sometimes wonder whether I made the right choice.

Andy C, St Albans
I'm sure linguistics is a fascinating subject for those who choose to study it, but I haven't read anything that convinces me it provides anything other than peripheral benefits.

Nick P from Dorset
Linguistics provides vital clues to our prehistory, in terms of movements of peoples. Indo-European languages are spoken from Iceland to Sri Lanka, which enables us to theorise about how this particular group spread in pre-history, and also who was there before them. For example in Southern India, the Dravidian Family of languages dominates, but there being pockets still spoken in the North as well indicates that they were more widespread before the Indo-European migrations. Some of this has now been confirmed by DNA studies. I'm no expert, but this is fascinating stuff, and as important in it's own way as any other of the sciences or humanities we study.

Frances from Edinburgh
Linguistics has many more applications. I am about to start a PhD in Developmental Linguistics, roughly speaking, this area of linguistics looks at developing language systems, this includes subjects such as child language acquisition or second language acquisition. Knowing how children learn language, and the stages of language development has many obvious implications, not least being able to identify children with language difficulties. My research will concentrate on second language acquisition; looking at how language learning background affects how second language learners process sentences. This research relies on many different areas of linguistics, such as syntax, many of which do not seem to have an obvious application. Understanding how people acquire language allows applied linguists to develop more effective ways of teaching foreign languages. Another area which relies on linguistics is speech therapy - for example, linguists look at how strokes affect language, and an understanding of how language is organized in the brain allows more effective therapies to be developed.

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