Cross-cultural insights and questions from home and abroad


Why LINGUISTS get ANNOYED when you ask what language they study…

Hello, Hola, Salut, Olá ! 


What do Linguists study anyway???

Degelitos is back after a long WordPress break with some more interesting topics! Today I’m gonna try to break down in simple English what Linguistics is. Hope you got a minute.

Although it is very common for linguists to be bilingual, trilingual, or even polyglots, some or even many are actually monolingual. So today I am going to explain how it is possible for a linguist to be monolingual by explaining my version of the world of linguistics.

First of all, linguistics is an interdisciplinary field which cover all subjects that have a relation to “language”.

In English the word language poses some issues right from the start. Language can refer to the type of language used within a language (such as your native language) or it can refer to a foreign language/tongue (a second language). I think the biggest problem here is that most people think linguistics is only about foreign tongues, but let me tell you that is not the case. Linguists study language within a specific tongue (language) such as English, and/or they study linguistic phenomenons in foreign languages such as grammatical structures or dialects of Arabic. This is the first important point.


In other languages, like Spanish or French, there are two words to carefully distinguish one type of “language” from the other. In Spanish lengua means tongue (world language if you will) and lenguaje means language, like the type of language you use such as formal/informal. So when someone asks a linguist in Spanish what they study, one doesn’t necessarily assume foreign languages.


Since there are different subfields of linguistics a linguist can specialize in different areas of the field such as psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, morphology, semantics, typology, phonetics, phonology, syntax, grammar, dialects, language acquisition (of a first, second, or third language), translation, interpretation, computational linguistics, animal communication, or even anthropology. You can also be interested in making up new languages and become a conlanger. Conlangers are the linguists who create fake languages for movies and video games. I’m sure I’m forgetting some… please feel free to comment.

I personally am interested more in sociolinguistics, dialectology, and phonetics. What does this mean? It means, my personal linguistic interests are related to language its role in society and particular sounds or phonological traits of a language or dialect.  How you and others speak has an effect on society even in a monolingual environment. Studying foreign languages is cool, but also studies different varieties (or dialects) of the same language can be cool too!


Back to my point about how linguists can be monolingual… Imagine I was monolingual. I’m not, but I definitely do not speak Vietnamese for example. I do however, thanks to studying linguistics, understand some things about how the Vietnamese language works. I don’t assume every language has the same grammatical processes as my native language. In Vietnamese (correct me if I’m wrong) there are many ways to say hello, and they way you say it depends on who you’re talking to and the level of respect you want to show them. How do you say these hellos? I do not know, I learned and I forgot. Another interesting feature of Vietnamese is that it´s a tonal language which means you can have the same 1 syllable word, and the tone you put on it changes the meaning completely. My favorite example is how you say table and friend, to the English speaker these words might sound the same because our ears aren’t as sensitive to the tones. Bàn means table which has a descending tone (I believe) and bạn means friend and it has another tone. Keeping these things in mind help us understand the difficulties speakers might have in learning other languages with different typical features. 


Anyway I hope that’s enough of an introduction for now. PLEASE FEEL FREE TO COMMENT ON or CORRECT any mistakes I have here.

If you didn´t already know much about linguistics, I hope you learned something today. Also feel free to put in the comments any linguistic particularities that you find in your native language or a language you speak.




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Varieties of a language and “the right way to speak”

Who reading this speaks Spanish or Portuguese???… or basically any language that has several varieties. Well if your reading this you probably speak English as either a first or second language. Has it ever happened to you where you met someone who speaks a different variety of the language you speak? If so, then you have probably come across some of the same “issues” as I have.

So growing up in California, naturally I first learned a Mexican/ Mexican-American variety of Spanish which coming to Europe has caused me a lot of “linguistic problems”. First the Spaniards start by saying,“Aww your Spanish is soo Mexican, how cute.” They they continue by, “Well that’s incorrect. Spanish comes from Spain so if you want to speak it correctly it’s good to learn it here.”And they proceed to correct my accent…“The word is pronounced THAH-pa-tos, not SA-pa-tos”,which is really annoying. They think because my nationality is American, that my accent is still malleable, which is clearly not true given the fact that before I even arrived to Spain I already spoke fluently. In order to change this, I would have to speak incredibly slow and pay way more attention to my accent than the actual meaning of what I’m trying to say.

Anyway so, after 3 years in Spain I managed to retain my more generic “Latin American” accent and never conform to modifying my pronunciation of the Z and C letters. I also never conformed to using vosotros which is an informal term for the plural form of you. I continued to say ustedes and got along just fine, which again is the Latin American equivalent.Unfortunately, I did have to conform to many colloquial words and expressions which has resulted in me having a hybrid-Spanish. For English speakers it’s like talking with an American accent with a slightly British intonation and random British street slang. Yes, that does sound horrible. Although from a linguistic standpoint, I’d say it’s pretty badass.

Now as most of you know, I’m living in Paris, France. Luckily, all of the French I have learned has been only from Parisians, and my accent is pretty inevitably foreign (although most people can’t tell at first that I’m American). So I don’t get scolded for my crappy language or incorrect accent, yet praised for being an American that learned French pretty quickly (although in my opinion it sucks, but I get by so whatev!).

Now here’s the twist to this story… The grand majority of my friends here in Paris are from… can you guess it… LATIN AMERICA! Which means that all the Castillian Spanish expressions that I didn’t manage to reject, come spitting out of my mouth when talking to my Latino friends. And guess what, sometimes, every once in a while, I am asked what the hell I’m talking about, or told that what I said was “incorrect”. And keep in mind, every Spanish-speaking country has it’s varieties and my friends come from over 6 different countries. In June, I’ll be going back to California, my place of origin, and I’m certain that this will happen to me all over again.

In conclusion: Regardless of these annoyances and my constantly having to adapt and change my language use… I absolutely love the Spanish language and Latino culture and am more than willing to learn more and continue to be challenged of course while maintaining a slightly more Latino accent. (It’s just a personal preference… les pido disculpas a los españoles)

Now I reccomend this video to all my fellow Spanish Speakers: Que dificil es hablar el español