"I'm not a linguist, but…" – revisited

A few days have passed since we wrote our blog post “I’m not a linguist, but…” and several people have felt the urge to respond to it on Facebook and in the comments section of the blog. Since we feel that the original blog post was (too) concise and left room for different interpretations, we’d like to clarify our point of view.

Let us first explain who we were (and were not) talking about in our first blog post.

  • When we wrote “linguists”, we were talking about scholars who are currently engaged in theoretical sign linguistics research and not just any person with a degree in linguistics. When we wrote about people commenting/presenting during conferences, we were not talking about people making unsupported claims about sign language or languages in general. We argue for the valuation and validation of lived experience and the inclusion of claims from people who are not theoretical sign linguists. We do not argue for a free-for-all or undifferentiated approach whereby the claims of just anyone without any background would be credible.
  • While we self-identify as Deaf Studies scholars, our work is cross-disciplinary and also and equally situated in the field of applied linguistics and sociolinguistics. This makes us applied linguists too, in some way – although we do not identify as linguists and are not trained as linguists. We go to applied linguistics conferences, we are engaging in literature and discourses in applied linguistics and sociolinguistics, we publish in applied linguistics journals. Although we do not identify as “linguists”, our work and academic activities are very much centered around language studies from a broader point of view. That is the case for many scholars who do research on sign language and on deaf lives, although not being theoretical linguists. Those are the people we were talking about in our first blog post.
  • We were not talking about (theoretical) linguists; we were talking about ourselves: scholars who are also engaged in language studies and do not identify as “linguists”. We were writing about how we label ourselves; not about how to label others.

It is important to appreciate that we come from a Deaf Studies background (although, as has become clear by now, our work goes beyond Deaf Studies) and to understand the historical and contemporary position of Deaf Studies vis-à-vis sign linguistics.

  • Deaf Studies has historically been and is still a marginalised academic field of study compared to sign linguistics. Sign linguistics as a field has a longer history, more specialised conferences (eg TISLR), more research funding, more publications. We know (deaf) scholars with a very broad interest in deaf lives and sign language (not limited to sign linguistics) who felt they had no choice but to go into sign linguistics if they wanted to build up an academic career. We also know sign linguists and sign language teachers who are asked to teach Deaf Studies subjects as if Deaf Studies is in a subordinate position to sign linguistics/sign language studies. This means Deaf Studies subjects are rarely taught by experts. These patterns in funding/teaching have not particularly contributed to the development and maturation of Deaf Studies as a field, including its theoretical framework, research methodologies and so on. That’s not the fault of sign linguists or sign language teachers – we are simply flagging it up as a reality. If we start contributions by saying we are not linguists, we imply there is a kind of hierarchy and we endorse that hierarchy, and we imply that that linguists per definition have a higher status or that they have the sole entitlement to speak about any issue regarding language. Imagine physicists consequently saying “I’m not a mathematician, but I’ve made a calculation”. There is no need to say this at all.
  • We are very well aware that this privileged status of sign linguists is historically situated and endorsed and reinforced by many deaf people themselves, who still see and label “sign linguists” as the only ones entitled and allowed to make claims about sign language.

We were not making statements about linguists or about the value of sign linguistics as an academic discipline.

  • Yet the fact that most people who felt the urge to respond to our blog post are people who identify as linguists, points to an interesting fact. We feel that this debate is very similar to the debate about deaf versus hearing scholars: many deaf scholars who point out what they, as deaf scholars, bring to the discipline of Deaf Studies and sign language studies (see also here) feel they constantly have to reassure hearing scholars that the latter’s work is valuable and that they do not see it as redundant in any way. What we are saying is that there are different perspectives on language, and that these all should be valued. And that it is not only one’s education/degree that counts, but also and equally the literature and discourse one engages with.
  • We do not think (at all) that sign linguistics as a field is redundant or that the work of linguists can be done by scholars from other fields, like anthropologists. Just as we believe that (sign) linguists cannot do the work of anthropologists or teach about any topic in Deaf Studies if they have not specialised themselves in these areas either by training or by reading.

We also did not imply that theoretical linguists are narrow-minded specialists who know nothing about deaf lives or broader issues, or are not interested in or committed to those issues. There are scholars trained and qualified as theoretical linguists who are working and publishing in a multidisciplinary fashion eg. on life stories, language rights, education etc. It’s not only us who work interdisciplinary. We respect and value the many different contributions that scholars who identify as linguists (among other self-ascribed academic identities), make.

To end with: we argue that knowledge on language should be situated and not put in stable or strict hierarchies. For example, during events focusing on deaf education, educational scientists provide different (complementary or not) perspectives on bilingual education compared to linguists. We believe it is helpful to state where we come from (education, interpreting, applied linguistics) when making statements. Although not as a way of covering up or apologizing for the fact that we are not linguists.

Annelies Kusters and Maartje De Meulder

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