To answer this question, we may actually first understand who is not a linguist. From the word “Lingua” itself we somehow understand that it has something to do with languages. Language is a system of communication, a major factor in building a civilisation, a tool for literary expression, a way to express thought. We usually see a lot of interested faces when we start a discussion on languages. However, can we call all these interested people linguists?
Many people are fascinated by languages and learn a lot of languages as a constructive hobby, join language clubs, play different games and solve language puzzles, admire beautiful poetry written in good language. Does this mean that all these language enthusiasts are linguists?
Some people work in fields which require working with languages extensively, for example journalists and writers write books and articles, politicians use impressive language to attract audiences, translators use languages all the time to take ideas from one language and recreate them effectively in another language. Psychologists, sociologists, engineers, lawyers and many other professional practitioners find several points of interests in the functional properties of languages. Are all of them linguists?
A linguist’s role and work is markedly different from all the above mentioned roles. A linguist has no external motivation to use language as a tool to accomplish some other work. A linguist approaches these phenomena of languages from within to study language itself instead of completing some other task through the medium of language. A linguist is interested in finding out how we learn languages, how the brain works in learning different languages and how we retain the language in our minds. A linguist carries out a ‘scientific investigation’ of languages and understands the underlying principles of human languages by following every scientific research conventions including empirical and statistical convention.
One may even wonder what a ‘scientific investigation’ is in this case. Science is a discipline that tries to explain why and how things are the way they are. Scientific studies involve having a hypothesis, data collection, analysis and explanation of the data collected, followed by statistical analyses and finally they accept or reject their hypothesis by ultimately culminating is making of a law or theory. Hence a linguistic study involves all these aspects of a scientific investigation and a linguist is usually highly interested in such enquiries. A true linguist is constantly engaged in discovering more about languages and improving their methods of research and constructing new theories.
So would you say that a linguist speaks lots of languages? The answer is no. A linguist may very well be monolingual. The discipline does not involve speaking these languages but studying the languages with the help of the above mentioned scientific conventions and understand the underlying structure of language or languages.
So, the next time you come across a linguist, think twice before asking “How many languages do you speak?”