Whenever I tell people that I study linguistics there are two major responses. The first is “cool” followed by a rapid change of subject. The second is “so, how many languages do you speak?”. Part of me is tempted to pluck a number out of my head and say it with enough force and conviction that it is essentially taken as fact – “26!”. Another part of me is tempted to say something like “all of them” or “none of them” just to see what would happen. These options, however, are not the mark of a good conversationalist. So, the kinder part of me tries to give a more honest answer, but then the linguistics student in me kicks in… How do we define a language? Are there languages that I can read and write but not speak? Do different dialects count? To a linguistics student the question of how many languages you speak is far from innocent. But the problem is not so much to do with the answers; it is more to do with the question itself.
Linguistics is not the study of vocab lists and grammar exercises; it is the study of the structures and principles of language. What is language? What is it made up of? What are the characteristics and properties of its parts? How do these parts fit together? Why do these parts fit together in the way that they do? These are just some of the guiding questions in linguistics.
However, it can be quite difficult to get this message across. Virtually every human on the planet knows at least one language. It rolls off the tongue (or off the hands in the case of Sign Languages) so naturally that most people are not even aware of just how complex language is. Consequently, they might not even realise that there is anything about language worth studying from a scientific perspective.
To add to the linguist’s problems, the mere mention of language often unleashes a tirade about the ‘corruption’ or ‘degeneration’ or ‘sloppiness’ of the language of ‘the youth of today’, or about the relentless influx of Americanisms into British English, or about the use of ‘like’, and so on.
You might want to check out this article by John McWhorter for an alternative, linguistically-oriented perspective on such issues:
Of course, all of this relies on some notion of ‘correct usage’. How many of you have been told to not split not to split an infinitive, or not to strand a preposition, or that two negatives make a positive so anyone who uses two negatives to express a negative is not just incorrect, but illogical? In other words, there are some very strong opinions out there about what language is and is not. The problem for the linguistics student is that this is not the definition of language that they work with. Following and getting others to follow the social conventions imposed on a particular language comes under the term prescriptivism. Overcoming prescriptivism is one of the first things a linguistics student must do. This is because in order to find out what the characteristics and properties of language are, we must first observe and describe language ‘in its natural habitat’ (i.e. outside of grammar classes). Our approach to language is thus not prescriptive but descriptive. We are not so concerned with what people think language should and shouldn’t be like, we are more concerned with what language is or is not like.
Studying other languages helps a lot in this regard. For example, than in English is used to introduce the standard of comparison in a more…than comparative construction, e.g. John is more athletic than Fred. The syntax and semantics of than and the material that it introduces is quite complex, but typologically speaking, this strategy for forming comparatives is actually quite rare. In other words, it is quite unusual for a language to have an element such as than which is dedicated to introducing standards of comparison. Most languages use a preposition (or postposition) or some form of case marking. This raises a number of questions for linguistic theory, for example, how do these different strategies come to be interpreted in the same way, i.e. as comparative constructions? Does the frequency of adposition strategies suggest that than might be a preposition in English? Is there independent evidence for this?
To return to the original question of “how many languages do you speak?”, we might now wish to answer that linguistics is the study of language rather than a language, so the question is not particularly relevant. In practice, of course, a linguist might focus on a particular language, but the main aim is not to be able to speak, understand, read and write that language. The main aim is to get inside the language, to see how it works at a deeper, more abstract level. In doing so, we come to understand more about one of the most fascinating and impressive aspects of human identity.