What Linguistics is and isn’t
Despite its relatively recent addition to the pantheon of formal areas of inquiry (nevermind the people who have been writing about language for centuries, like the Sanskrit grammarian Pāņini), Linguistics is a massive field, comprised of many different subfields. Each of these subfields deals with a particular aspect of the human faculty of Language (usually denoted by “Language” with a capital “L”). As scientists, linguists are concerned with describing languages or Language, much in the same way a marine biologist tracks fish populations. Linguists are not grammarians who demand strict adherence to a particular style, or gatekeepers of Language who tell you what is or isn’t a word. We are not omniscient beings who have memorized entire dictionaries and obscure grammatical rules–and not all linguists speak more than one language.
Linguists seek out patterns in language, and draw generalized conclusions based on the observed data. Sometimes these are theories about how people actually process or learn languages on a neurological level. Other times, these are laser-focuses studies on how particular populations of language speakers use a certain type of linguistic structure (e.g. inserting -ma- inside a word, like Homer Simpson’s “saxo-ma-phone”; or similarly inserting an expletive inside a word, like “fan-freakin’-tastic”).
As a language learner, studying linguistics can help you recognize these language patterns to help you pick up new words or structures, or understand something your native language doesn’t do (but the new language does). As a language teacher, having a deep understanding of how people pick up languages is essential. It’s also extremely helpful to be able to explicate the patterns of the language you teach to inquisitive, but struggling students. How many times, over the course of your own language learning, did you come across an odd language form or grammatical structure and ask your teacher (or yourself) “Why does it work this way?” or “How did it get to be like this?”, only to get some variation of the response, “It just is that way, you have to memorize it.” (How many times have you said that to a student?)
While that response saves face for you, since you don’t have to admit you don’t know the answer, it crushes the student’s curiosity, and ignores the fact that languages are methodical. For every inconsistency that doesn’t conform to the “rules” of a language there’s a logical process that explains why it came to be the way it is. Why does the English verb “to be” have such odd-looking forms that seem completely unrelated (“am”, “is”, “are”, “was”, “were”, “be”)? It’s because Old English had two verbs for being, bēon and wesan. Does this help students memorize the irregular forms? No, but it answers their question and keeps them interested in learning more. It also reassures them that you’re not just making things difficult for them just because you’re a meanie-pants. Interested students are motivated students. Every time you tell them “it is what it is, just memorize it”, you’re killing their inquisitive side and you’re squashing their motivation. If they ask something you don’t know the answer to, just say, “Huh, that’s an interesting question. I’ll look into that and get back to you”, or “Wow, I never thought about that, but I’m sure there’s a reason. Could you look it up? and tell me, I’d like to know too!”. This validates their inquisitiveness, encourages them to engage more deeply with the language, and saves face for you.
Here’s a few areas of linguistics and how the research that falls under these umbrellas are relevant to language teachers:
|Phonetics||Helps you describe how to pronounce sounds that your students are unfamiliar with|
|Phonology||Helps you describe how sounds interact with one another in the target language, e.g. French liaison|
|Morphology||Helps you explain prefixes/suffixes to students so they can improve their vocabulary faster|
|Syntax||Helps you describe the relationships between words in a sentence (this is especially useful for case-inflected languages like Latin or German)|
|Pragmatics||Helps you coach students to have authentic conversations, where they ask relevant questions, make polite requests, or learn how to take turns in conversations with native speakers (are you aware of the cultural differences in turn-taking for your language?)|
|Psycholinguistics||Helps you visualize how students are taking in target language information, and predict where they’re going to have difficulties (and why)|
This of course excludes the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA), or Applied Linguistics. The majority of research in SLA deals with learning English as a second language–so Applied Linguistics departments often ostensibly deal with TESOL in the US. However, SLA research is explicitly concerned with the processes behind language learning, language teaching, and language assessment–including psychological, linguistic, sociological, and political factors.