"I'm not a linguist, but…" Claiming the right to talk about language.

During the past year, we started to mark the number of times people say “I’m not a linguist” (sometimes followed by, “but…”) during sign language and Deaf Studies conferences. Indeed we noticed that presenters, and members from the audience who comment or ask questions, have a habit of apologising for themselves before making their point or asking their question. We noticed that many people are not aware what they are actually doing when they say this, until we pointed this out to them. We too have been guilty of this practice of downplaying ourselves when we talk about language. Today we were at an applied linguistics roundtable (not specifically about sign languages), and (not?) surprisingly, one person working in the area of culture and language said: “I’m not a linguist” before making her point. So this practice is apparently not limited to sign language and Deaf Studies events.

And note: people do not say “My area is not (sign) linguistics”, but “I’m not a linguist”. We are defining ourselves and our identities as scholars by what we are not. And in doing so we signal that our expertise in language studies doesn’t deserve as much credit as that of linguists. We are putting linguists on a pedestal, as if they are the only ones who are allowed to make claims about language. Instead we could say: “I’m coming from this/that area/discipline” (such as language policy, anthropology, applied linguistics, interpreting, education, and sign language work/advocacy). Many people working in many disciplines have done invaluable research into all aspects of language.

We think it is time to stop this weird practice of apologizing for our not-being-a-linguist. Not only linguists can talk about language. We can too, and so can you.

Annelies Kusters and Maartje De Meulder (not linguists, sorry ;-))


2 responses to “"I'm not a linguist, but…" Claiming the right to talk about language.”

  1. Gardy van Gils Avatar
    Gardy van Gils

    This is a very interesting point and thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have also different experiences. I am Deaf and as a lecturer Deaf Studies and Ethics, colleagues and students often ask me questions about the Dutch Sign Language (NGT). They are surprised and often lightly shocked when I tell them, even as a native signer with deaf (grand)parents and other Deaf family members, that I am totally not interested in how NGT is structured. I don’t even know the grammar rules or whatever but I like to use this language in a intuitive way. Please, don’t misunderstanding me, I love NGT, and I also love to play with the possibilities this beautiful language offers me to share my thoughts, humor, stories and so on. But scientific, linguistic explanations of this language doesn’t have my interest, the same about Dutch and English. So, I am not a linguist and I am proud of it! 😉

  2. It all depends on what it is that you are responding to, and what you want to say. There’s many interesting observations one has about one’s own native language, or about other languages. Especially for sign languages, where many basic questions have not been answered yet and many more not yet posed, chances are that an untrained native (or fluent) signer can observe interesting facts or raise questions that will be relevant to a linguistic audience. But of course whether it is appropriate to join in a discussion of linguists with a lot of background knowledge on the topic, will very much depend on the setting: how focused or general is the discussion, are there other specialists who also have things to say, et cetera. I find it rather polite myself when I’m not at a linguistic meeting (being a linguist myself), to clarify my background/status before I join in a discussion or ask a question. And i surely have been to many linguistic meetings where the scarce discussion time has been filled with very general questions from people who do not have much background knowledge — if only they had realised that perhaps linguistic training is a requisite for some type of discussions. Or that it would have been more appropriate to save their question or comment for the coffee break.
    So, without any further details, it’s hard to evaluate whether or not saying “I’m not a linguist” was appropriate in a specific context.

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