Genuinely don't get what the point of Linguistics is

Hi all.

Recently been reading about linguistics and in particular, Chomsky.

I see his theories and whatnot about universal grammar etc.

My reason for creating this post is, what is the actual point of linguistics? Outside of people analysing things, what does it actually do? What useful purpose does it serve for anyone outside of an academic setting?

I’ll admit i’ve not been reading about it for a long time but i’m struggling to see what important program, method of learning or anything has come out of (particularly Chomskyist) linguistics?

So, let’s say Universal Grammar is true - and this is supposed to be one of the greatest pieces of work in known linguistics - what changed? What good did it do for people practically learning languages?

As far as i can see, linguistics as a science exists just for other linguists and actually has no useful practical application at all.

Ok, people might say ‘we understand better how languages are acquired’ or whatever, but people have learned languages for as long as we’ve been able to use them so it’s not actually done anything except help people understand it better.

What am i missing?

Ever heard of applied linguistics?

Don’t get me going. Largely sympathize, especially as it concerns the largely discredited “universal grammar” hypothesis. Now back to learning languages. Read Krashen instead.

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I’m simply just reading instead, much more useful. After a month solid reading French i’ve got over 2000 well known words and another 5000 saved (i use a different platform because i’m poor) and am currently reading books meant for teens and actually understand most of it. 1 month. In 1 year god knows where i’ll be but the reading and listening seems to be working for now.

For example, i can tell you that in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie lives in a house with his parents and both sets of grandparents, sleeps on a mattress on the floor in one of the two rooms, eats cabbage soup all day and second helpings on Sunday. I’ve never read the book except in French yet i have a vivid recall in my head of what goes on in the book as if i’d read it in English. This is purely through reading and i’ve not yet even listened to it. Powerful stuff.

But what have they actually done? I wanted a discussion not a link.

If learning a language is as simple as i suspect it is (spending lots of time with the language in some way or other), what have they ACTUALLY contributed to anything? Even Krashen, who i largely agree with, what has his research done for the average learner, really? If you learn a language you’re unavoidably going to read in it (unless you’re illiterate in your native language) and you’re definitely going to listen. So if he’s just said ‘that stuff that everyone’s going to do anyway is good for your learning’ then all he’s contributed is a commentary on things that naturally happen anyway.

In my opinion, far too much time is spent on theories and academic pointlessness that could be spent on useful things. In the time it would take someone to read and understand Chomsky’s collective linguistic work and related works you could read yourself fluent.

It’s not only linguistics. Many academic disciplines have become irrelevant through an overemphasis on abstruse questions.
Scholars are obsessed about publishing and forget about what’s important or even just interesting.
There are always exceptions (Karshen is one in the field of linguistics, as Steve has pointed out) but this is the general tendency.

Paul Graham has described this phenomenon in the case of his own field: computer science. I think this applies to many domais, certainly linguistics and my own discipline, psychology.

I quote

"Unfortunately, beautiful things don’t always make the best subjects for papers. Number one, research must be original-- and as anyone who has written a PhD dissertation knows, the way to be sure that you’re exploring virgin territory is to stake out a piece of ground that no one wants. Number two, research must be substantial-- and awkward systems yield meatier papers, because you can write about the obstacles you have to overcome in order to get things done. Nothing yields meaty problems like starting with the wrong assumptions. Most of AI is an example of this rule; if you assume that knowledge can be represented as a list of predicate logic expressions whose arguments represent abstract concepts, you’ll have a lot of papers to write about how to make this work. As Ricky Ricardo used to say, “Lucy, you got a lot of explaining to do.”

The way to create something beautiful is often to make subtle tweaks to something that already exists, or to combine existing ideas in a slightly new way. This kind of work is hard to convey in a research paper."

Source: Hackers and Painters

I agree but in terms of linguistics i don’t see how saying ‘we have X in our brain that means X’ actually helps any normal person. All i can see it doing is helping other academics to discuss things that have no real world impact.

To quote The Life Of Brian - this calls for immediate discussion.

Lingustics is not a field of science studying how to learn languages. Many fields of science have little practical use. They exist to find out how things work. What is the practical benefit of studying dinosaur fossils? What is the point of studying the common ancestor of humans and fish? Curiosity.


The problem is that most “research” in many sciences don’t even address interesting questions most of the time.
Besides, of course the process of acquiring a language should be part of linguistics!

I agree that historical linguistics and the study of how languages are related etc. is interesting and worthwhile. At present I am reading a book called Lingo ( has some interesting revelations, for example that Lithuanian is the closest living language to the original Indo-European language.
Unfortunately much of Linguistics wanders into areas that are only of interest to a limited group of intellectuals and activists like Sociolinguistics, or the Universal Grammar hypothesis. Moreover, linguistics tries to force its way into the field of language acquisition with mostly unfortunate consequences in my view.

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Correct! One thing is for a science not to have applied goals (such as paleontology, to follow JM111’s example) and quite another to actively avoid applied topics in favor of abtruse, irrelevant and uninteresting endeavours.
As I already said, my own field (academic Psychology) is guilty of this.

I cannot comment on that since most of the science books I read are popular science books, meaning they are books that specifically compile interesting topics. I don’t know much about linguistics, but at least part of it is very interesting for me. For the last month or two I’ve read a lot about Uralic, specifically Fenno-Ugric, languages. I even found out that there is a controversial theory that suggests Finnish is is related to Mongolian, Korean and Japanese through the Ural-Altaic language family. It’s most likely not true, but interesting nevertheless. (There’s even some people on the internet who like to cherry pick pictures of Finns that look Asian-esque in order to prove that Finns are Asian or “mongoloids”.)

Oh well, I got derailed a bit. Anyway, I do think that linguistics is maybe the most interesting science-related topic for me. I like reading about theories, comparative lists of Uralic vocabulary, reconstructed words, historical linguistics, etymology etc. I think linguistics is very interesting, but then again, I specifically search for things that interest me.

Yes, I like historical linguistics as well. Stephen addressed this issue, as well as the difference with other areas.
Interestingly enough, it seems that the most interesting part is the one getting less attention. Here’s an interesting video criticizing some modern attempts at tackling the Indo-European origin question. At the end of it, the speakers mention the lack of interest for historical linguistics in modern times:

Interest. I’m an analytical/logical person by nature (I’m the chemistry and physics type). However, when it comes to learning Russian, I am an engineer. I enjoy learning the connections, but I don’t want to derive everything and go into the linguistics of it (the history of the genitive case? I don’t care). I want practicality and usefulness.

If someone wants to learn linguistics go ahead, but if you’re learning it to better yourself at a language, it’s like learning Classical Thermodynamics to learn how to cook the perfect burrito.

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“As far as i can see, linguistics as a science exists just for other linguists and actually has no useful practical application at all.”

This is not true at all. What you are saying here is true only for a small part of the huge field of linguistic science.

“What am i missing?”

Your are missing informations.

“has no useful practical application at all.”

See the post from TroyRoyaumes: " A-P-P-L-I-E-D linguistic"!

“But what have they actually done? I wanted a discussion not a link.”

Do you just want to discuss or to want do get a serious answer?

You expect from others to have all the needed informations present, to have a serious discussion, and this in an époque where informations are primarly on the web and not necessarily sufficient present in the head of people. Do you want to go back in the middle age? Do you want proclaim populist statements based on lack of information.?

I am agree with you there is a part of linguistic which is just as you say for other scientists. Some guys on the internet like Christophe C. and others dont represent the linguistic science at all.

When you think about linguistic just as an opposite thing to an effective language learning you are right but I think we have to be carful. I dont reject linguistic science in general because there is a huge aid in related disciplines to solve practicle problems as in medicine, computer science, literacy problems, forensic and os on…

To put it in a nutshell: language science on one hand can be stupid but on the other hand it can save lives.

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There is
La psycholinguistique
La neurolinguistique
La sociolinguistique

I dont know the exact expressions in english.

They all have little or nothing to do with language learning.

As the expression „linguiste science“ has been mentioned I think it would be better to be more precise.

And last but not least:

What would we do without dictionaries ? I think they are written by linguists.

Yes, of course there are many branches. But that’s not the point. The ability of linguistics to give some nonsense advice on a topic such as language learning acts as a test, as a criterion about its overall merit as a scientific discipline.
Think of this, of course physics tackles a lot of questions, some more related to practical concerns than others.
But what would you think if the physical science couldn’t answer simple practical questions, such as how fast a body falls of how strong a piece of metal should be to withstand a given force?
What if, when confronted with such questions, physicists would dismiss it saying "oh, yes, but there are other questions, you know, string theory, what happened at the Bing Bang, …
One would be forgiven to cast some doubt about physical science as a whole.

Don’t know much about Chomsky so I’m not going to try to say anything. I basically agree with what’s been said about academia becoming irrelevant in some ways and about linguistics doing nothing to help the ordinary person learn languages.

In my mind linguistics exists mainly for the people who want to do it out of scientific curiosity. They do research and record the results as part of our accumulation of knowledge, because as a group humanity is trying to figure out how things work, as someone already pointed out. Not all of us are going to find this stuff interesting enough to devote time to it.

As a non-linguist I feel like what I can get out of this is historical perspective and maybe a bit of insight into how language affects thinking and vice versa. Linguistics shows how the structure of language and availability of descriptive words are affected by the local culture. How is our thinking affected and limited by our native language? Would we think differently in ways we can’t even imagine if we grew up speaking a radically different language? I think it’s good to simply be aware of this. You can also think about how propaganda campaigns use language and how to defend against them.

But yeah, I’d prefer to spend time actually learning a new language.

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But it seems easier to apply logic and the scientific method to the study of grammar and the history of languages than to language learning.

If linguistics is a hard science, I don’t think finding a good method of language learning is one of the initial ‘simple questions’ it’s supposed to answer.

But I can’t see they’re trying.