Why linguists hate being asked how many languages they know


“So you’re a linguist. How many languages do you know?” Every linguist hears this question a lot. There’s even a meme about it. And in addition to over-use, there are several contradictory reasons why it’s deeply frustrating. 

1. Linguistics isn’t about learning lots of languages. Except when it is. 

Linguists as scholars work to analyze language and figure out how it works and why we can speak it. Unfortunately, there’s also another meaning for linguist which is a translator or person who speaks a ton of languages. Academic linguists refer to the latter as polyglots or hyperpolyglots. But, for example, the US military job descriptions use linguist to mean polyglot/translator. It’s a real meaning, but it’s like asking a baseball player if they hit balls using a small winged mammal. Not so much.  

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