The Difference Between a Linguist and a Language Learner

If you geek out over languages like I do, you probably have heard of the term linguistics or linguist. Upon coming to my new university, I’ve had the opportunity to enroll myself in my first linguistics course, and after my third class it’s obvious how different the terms and definition of linguist and language learner are.

Though my knowledge of language learning is much greater than that of linguistics, I shuttered just a little bit when the question of one person in our class of 130, to the teacher, echoed throughout the lecture hall, “How many languages do you speak?”

I’ve seen somewhere on the Internet, something to the effect of “Asking a linguist how many languages they speak is like asking a geologist how many pet rocks they have.”

Linguists study the structure of languages, and language learners study the language itself. In my linguistics class, we’ve already picked at Turkish morphology and genders in German, and you can bet that not everyone in our class of 130 speaks both German and Turkish.

Linguistics deals with anything from morphology (word structure) to syntax (sentence structure) to semantics (meaning) to phonology (pronunciation) plus more–not to mention that linguistics comes with a lot of fancy vocabulary.

Literally my linguistics homework, which could be potentially embarrassing if I did it incorrectly.

Being first and foremost a language learner (for the time being), I could learn Russian, Hindi, perfect my Mandarin and French, and still know nothing about linguistics. Linguists, by having specific data, will be able to tell a lot about a language, even though they may not be learners/speakers of that language.

I don’t feel like a “natural” linguist, just because the material doesn’t stick the first time it’s introduced. Language learning comes much more easily to me, whether it be writing and memorizing characters or finding patterns to a specific grammatical structure. Linguistics is surprisingly a very analytical subject, and though it’s nothing like advanced calculus or quantum physics (at least as far as I know).

On the flip side, I know of a peer linguist who speaks (learned) Brazilian Portuguese fluently and Spanish very well. He’s taking Mandarin with me and the concept of characters and the sounds that Mandarin makes in relation to pinyin can be a bit overwhelming for him.

My Chinese name; the beauty of those characters though! My real last name with a given name (given by my Chinese professor)

This past summer, I saw one of my peers from my graduating class in high school. We caught up a little just by talking about what we’ve been doing for the past two years, and when I told him about my language endeavors, he said, “Elica I had no idea you were such a linguist!”

I just smiled, nodded my head, and changed the subject; It hasn’t bothered me to a point where I must correct the perpetrator on what is a linguist and what is a language learner–but maybe next time I’ll just send them this post. 🙂

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