Blog Excerpts

A Linguist Answers, "Why Do I Do What I Do?"

A new online magazine, Popular Linguistics, kicks off with its first issue this week. The issue includes an invited essay by Lauren Hall-Lew, Lecturer in Sociolinguistics at the University of Edinburgh, entitled "Why Do I Do What I Do?" Here's an excerpt.

Choosing a career in academia, and specifically a career of linguistic research, doesn't have an immediately obvious benefit for the world in the way that many other jobs do. We're not discovering medical cures, feeding starving children, or fixing your car. Despite this, I think real-world value exists in linguistics research.

In some ways, how active someone wants to be in exploring the value of linguistics varies from researcher to researcher. For example, work like this book by (my friends and fellow linguists) Anne Charity and Christine Mallinson makes academic research immediately practical, bringing insights directly to classroom teachers. Among linguists, I'm what's known as a sociolinguist, someone whose research looks at the interaction of language and society. Sociolinguists in particular take our language data directly from the mouths of everyday people, and many of us have long recognized the need to give back to those communities that we work with (something eloquently pointed out by one of my PhD advisors, John Rickford, in a paper he wrote in in 1997 about African American speech communities).

For a lot of us, though, exactly how we give back varies considerably; many of us are wracked with guilt for not being able to give back "enough."

We sit with our digital recorders and microphones in the living rooms of kind strangers who tell us the highs and lows of their life story, and we listen. Then we walk away, out of their home, out of that community, into our office (and in my case, across a continent and an ocean), and in many cases we may not see those strangers again.

We didn't fix their problems, we didn't feed their children (although the lucky among us have research grant funds to at least pay them for their time), and we certainly didn't fix their car. We take those stories and we turn them into research papers about the "construction of local ideologies" or the "progression of sound change" or the "negotiation of social meaning." Who cares? Do they care? How can we justify asking a tax-based scientific funding agency to pay for such an endeavor? How can we convince undergraduate students that spending your life doing something like this is something worthwhile?

Read the rest of Lauren's essay here. And stay tuned on the Visual Thesaurus for our interview later this week with linguists Anne Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson, authors of Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools.

Click here to read more articles from Blog Excerpts.

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Mark Liberman investigates what made Martin Luther King's oratory so powerful.
We talk to British researcher Dan Clayton on teaching English grammar in schools.
A conversation with Geoffrey Pullum, co-creator of the blog Language Log.