Chapter 1: Human Language and Language Science
1.6 Doing good with language science
In the previous section we tried to acknowledge the ways that linguistics has done and continues to do harm, like many fields of academic inquiry. Acknowledging those harms is only part of our responsibility. In this book, we’re trying to focus on ways we can use the tools of language science to address some of those harms and even more importantly, do some good in the world. We also hope that working with this book will make you excited to carry on doing linguistics! So let’s think about some of the things linguistics can prepare you to do.
In the tech sector, people with linguistics training use their skills to improve software that summarizes texts, translates from one language to another, synthesizes natural-sounding speech for your voice assistant or your GPS, helps your voice assistant understand your speech! As I’m writing this book, speech recognition systems do an okay job on standardized American English accents, especially when spoken by lower voices, but are much less accurate for higher voices and for the many different accents that English speakers use. Maybe you’ll be one of the linguists who pushes back against these biases that are built into the algorithms!
Speaking of tech, another field where language science is valuable is in developing language-learning apps. That owl that scolds you if you skip your daily Esperanto practice was designed by linguists! Many people who are learning a new language find that their learning is enhanced by gaining the kind of metalinguistic awareness that you’ll acquire from this book.
That brings us to another really important area where linguistics is important: in supporting Indigenous people who want to reclaim, revive, or revitalize their languages. As we’ll see in later chapters, linguistic analysis of these grammars can be useful for creating teaching materials and supporting adult language learners who did not have the chance to learn their languages as children. Speaking for myself as a settler, I would want to be careful not to position myself as the expert who’s here to save the language! Instead, I’d want to follow the lead of Indigenous community members in deciding how and where to deploy my linguistics skills.
Linguistics training is not only good for language learning, but also for language teaching! Studying linguistics is often a good entry point to getting certified as an ESL teacher, or learning how to teach any other language for that matter.
A lot of students are drawn to studying linguistics because they want to pursue a clinical career in speech-language pathology. Ideally, evidence from language science informs the treatments that clinicians offer. For example, if someone has a brain injury, their ability to produce or understand language might be impaired, and speech therapy can sometimes recover some of that function. Or a trans person who wants their voice to sound different might seek the advice of a speech-language pathologist as part of their transition. Some clinicians take their careers in a more Hollywood direction and offer accent or dialect coaching for actors!
Linguists find their skills called upon in many other industries. I personally know linguists who have been paid for their expertise in:
- testifying in court as to the interpretation of contracts and policies,
- interpreting how customers understand the products they use,
- identifying the author of a disputed document,
- consulting on potential brand names for new medications, and
- creating entirely new languages for film and TV series.
Language is everywhere. It’s fundamental to how humans interact with each other, so understanding how language works is part of understanding people. And understanding people just might be a step towards doing some good in the world.