“So what is linguistics?” This is a question I have been asked many times, both by academics from other disciplines and by friends and relatives outside academia. So far I haven’t found a satisfactory way to answer this question. Apart from the usual dos and don’ts for science communication, linguisticians often face additional difficulties when disseminating knowledge due to ingrained public misunderstandings as well as the intrinsic nature of the subject. Language is so familiar a phenomenon and its study so perspective-dependent that anyone may come up with a new story. Since everyone wants to prove that their story is the most coherent, the field ends up having a multitude of vying theories and frameworks (though apparently not all linguisticians like subscribing to particular frameworks).

On the other hand, the public’s understanding of language is rarely theoretically driven but more often impressionistic, because few have the time to stop and ponder about the languages they use (and even fewer about the fact that they can use language). As a result, linguistic reflections, when they do occur, tend to be perceived as either metaphysical whims or just for fun.

Given the huge gap between a linguistician’s and a “naive speaker’s” understanding of language and the fact that language, unlike the study objects of other branches of science (e.g., physical particles, chemical reactions), is something that everyone can readily make observations of and form opinions about, public engagement is oftentimes a harder task in linguistics than in other disciplines. Public opinions on language are hardly ever scientific, while scientific ideas are seldom readily accessible. Once I asked my PhD supervisor’s advice on how to respond to naive speakers’ complaints that linguistic concepts were too abstruse to make sense; he said, “Just tell them to understand those concepts they need a master’s degree in linguistics.” I could imagine the awkwardness that would ensue after this line, but this was indeed a badass reply!

What I don’t understand is why the public wouldn’t as readily complain about other sciences with equally or even more abstruse concepts (e.g., physics, chemistry) than those in linguistics. And the public are not alone in this respect. For example, once I submitted an abstract to an interdisciplinary symposium held in my college at Cambridge, and the organizer asked me to rewrite it because it had too much jargon (despite the fact that I had reduced jargon to a minimum)—they wanted the abstract to be accessible to someone with zero background in linguistics (which, I thought, was a reasonable requirement). So I spent a whole day rewriting the half-page abstract, trying my best to put myself in a layperson’s shoes. Yet when the abstract booklet was released, I noticed that none of the STEM abstracts was accessible to me—and they couldn’t be farther from jargon-free! I’m not sure whether those authors had refused to rewrite their abstracts or the organizer simply hadn’t found those abstracts inaccessible (for the organizer was a STEM researcher themself), but if I had had my current mindset and confidence back then I would certainly have questioned the fairness of the reviewer straight away.

By comparison, my communication experiences with nonacademics, though also unsatisfactory, have caused me less hassle, perhaps because those experiences are usually informal chitchats. For instance, when I first got admitted into my PhD program in 2015, a friend of my dad (Uncle Zhang) invited us to dinner. During the meal we inevitably began talking about college majors, as his son was in high school and would soon start applications. I said I majored in linguistics, which was 語言學 ‘the study of language’ in Chinese, a much more transparent term than linguistics. Since it directly has a 語言 ‘language’ in it, and ‘study’ can often be dropped in discipline names (e.g., 物理學 ‘the study of physics’ = 物理 ‘physics’, 生物學 ‘the study of biology’ = 生物 ‘biology’), many people tend to think 語言學 ‘the study of language’ = 語言 ‘language’, and so 學語言學 ‘major in the study of language’ becomes wrongly equated with 學語言 ‘learn language’.

“But you’re already very good at languages. What else is there to study?” Commented Uncle Zhang’s wife, Auntie Wang.

I explained that linguistics was not about language learning but the scientific study of language, but she was still perplexed, “What’s there to study about language?

“For instance, I research on the structure of language; that is, how words are combined into meaningful sentences.” I continued explaining, trying to define syntax in an informal way. For fear of awkward silence I wisely paused before my explanation began to sound like preaching.

Auntie Wang was clearly very much intrigued by the idea of “scientific study of language.” She further asked, “So what contributions does research on language make to the society? Why is it significant?”

At that point I realized Auntie Wang was sincerely puzzled rather than just small-talking, but so was I (which I dared not admit), as I couldn’t think of any concrete contributions my syntactic research had to the real world! But if so, how could I convince Auntie Wang (and myself) that my PhD research wasn’t a waste of time and money? The solution I came up with was lame. I said, “It’s significant to science per se.”

Of course, Auntie Wang didn’t buy my pedantic assertion. She turned to her son and said, “Let’s not choose such a major. Let’s choose a more practical major instead.” That boy later chose to study engineering.

Two years later (in 2017), when I came back home for winter vacation, Uncle Zhang invited us to dinner again, and Auntie Wang raised the same question again, “So what on earth is the study of language about?”

This time I tried explaining from a less scholarly angle, “Well, it really studies everything about language, such as speech sounds, words, grammar, and meaning.” I paused a bit, “But the biggest question is why a human baby can master a language within such a short time whereas, say, a kitten or a puppy can’t.”

“Because its mother can’t speak either,” answered Auntie Wang. And that answer actually made more sense than what I was about to say (basically the universal grammar story).

“Exactly!” I quickly adjusted my explanation, “And why can’t its mother speak?”

“Because it doesn’t have language,” answered Auntie Wang.

“Right, and that’s exactly what linguisticians are curious about—” I continued, “There are many different creatures on Earth, but why do human beings alone have language?”

Auntie Wang apparently started pondering, and so did everyone else at the table. I timely concluded my “minilecture” with a takeaway message: “Language is a human instinct.”

This second attempt was much more successful than my first one. Later that night Uncle Zhang further asked me some more detailed questions he had had about Chinese and other languages, and I talked a bit more about the historical relations between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

Another two years is gone and we’re now in 2019. I have finally received my PhD degree, and upon my return Uncle Zhang invited us to dinner yet again, this time together with my high school Chinese teacher (who’s also a family friend). My high school teacher asked—unsurprisingly—what my research was about. I tried to repeat the “biolinguistic” introduction I had used two years ago.

“I study language as a natural object.” I said, calibrating my wording to my high school teacher’s knowledge background. With a university degree in Chinese language and literature, she was obviously more familiar with linguistic concepts than our other family friends.

“Do you focus on any particular languages?” She asked.

“No,” I replied, “I study general linguistics, by comparing many different languages and finding out their grammatical commonalities.”

“Okay,” said my high school teacher, who looked happy with my answer. But her next question was a challenging one: “So what’s a most significant undertaking in your field of research?

I was taken aback by the profoundness of the question but quickly realized that she must have had similar chats with many of her former students (aka my schoolmates). I repeated the “biolinguistic” route I had followed two years ago with Auntie Wang (who, by the way, was present this time as well), “Perhaps the question Why can children master their mother tongues within such a short period of time.”

“Why?” Asked my high school teacher.

“Well, our hypothesis is that humans are actually born with an innate language learning device, which is genetically encoded and enables a baby to acquire the language of whatever environment it is born into.” I paused a bit, slightly worrying that I might have started preaching again, “And based on that hypothesis we conduct many detailed crosslinguistic comparisons, hoping to discover an underlying grammatical blueprint for human language.”

“So where’s that blueprint encoded?” Asked my high school teacher.

“In the genes according to the theory we are pursuing,” I answered, “though perhaps only indirectly.” I quickly added, for fear of delivering the false message that there’s a particular “linguistic gene.” Even though FOXP2 had been discussed for a while (see this recent article for an up-to-date review), it had never been an unchallenged discovery; even less clear was its correlation with the universal grammar theory.

So your entire field is based on a hypothesis?” My high school teacher commented, quite calmly, while she was working on a second hairy crab (I gave her mine as I didn’t know how to eat crabs). This was a question well beyond my expectation, and one that’s often raised by linguisticians to linguisticians, not always kindly.

“Yes,” I didn’t know what else to say, “though my field is just one branch of linguistics.”

My high school teacher nodded, without further commenting. I could only hope whatever opinion she was forming was about the discipline rather than about her former student.

Even more recently, during a family get-together my own aunt (i.e., my mother’s sister), who’s also a Chinese teacher, told me she was very curious about my subject and asked if I could give her a brief introduction of linguistics. She was mainly interested in first language acquisition as she had been helping my cousin take care of my little nephews and was amazed by their fast-developing language ability.

I followed the “language instinct” route again, hoping to get across the idea that human beings are born with language learning talent. But my aunt wanted to know more—she wanted to know what exactly were there in the so-called universal grammar, the concept I had timely thrown to her.

I tentatively answered, “Those are all highly abstract rules, such as the possibility of combining words into sentences.”

“What’s that rule called?” My aunt wanted to know more details.

“It’s called ‘Merge.’” I answered, “Things in the born language-learning ability tend to be very basic and extremely general. This leaves enough room for different language varieties to ‘grow’ in babies’ minds. While the ultimate basics are innate, a lot more details must be determined by the language-learning environment.” I knew I was touching on the principles and parameters theory, but I didn’t want to sound boring.

“Okay.” said my aunt, “But tell me more about linguistics.”

“Linguistics has many subareas,” I answered, “including the study of speech sounds, the study of grammar, the study of word structure, the study of meaning, the study of language use, the study of how children learn languages, the study of language as a psychological phenomenon, and so on so forth.”

My aunt wanted to learn more about the study of meaning, so I gave her a brief introduction of lexical and compositional semantics, in plain Chinese. I also explained what morphology was along the way, using Chinese compounds like 黑板 ‘blackboard’ and 小花 ‘small flower’ as examples.

While I was thinking my explanation was accessible enough—it really was!—my aunt got more curious, “But we already know those basic things since long ago. Why are they worth researching at the doctoral level?

This was a question as challenging as that posed by my high school teacher, since both my teacher and my aunt have studied the grammar of (Old and Modern) Chinese in depth. I didn’t have a ready answer and so just acknowledged that what I had told her were indeed only the basics. I was (and still am) caught in a dilemma: What researchers are actually concerned about can’t be easily grasped by nonexperts, and what can be easily grasped are usually so basic and superficial that anyone with rationality would question their research worthiness.

Obviously I still need more reflection and practice in order to find a best way to sell linguistics to my friends and relatives, or maybe there’s no such thing as “a best way.” Anyway, I have learned from my past experiences that science communication can be really hard. But effective science communication is also ever-increasingly important for academics. As a research associate at Oregon State University said, “More effective communication is badly needed at almost every level of science.”

There are well known exercises like the elevator speech and the three minute thesis challenges as well as a wide variety of tips to follow (for examples see this, this, and this page), but it ultimately all boils down to practice, practice, and practice. The public are increasingly curious about academic research, and academics at all levels are under more and more pressing needs to enhance the impact of their research. Now is indeed “time for the very best scientists to engage,” as Nancy Baron remarks in the opening paragraph of her book Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter.

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