On Linguistics and Public Outreach

Earlier in the week A couple weeks ago, I posted three questions about science communication in the field of linguistics:

  1. Who is the Carl Sagan or Neil DeGrasse Tyson of linguistics? In other words, who do we have in linguistics who is an effective presenter of the ongoing work in the field?
  2. Is there one? (Implicitly, do we need one at all? Or why not many?)
  3. Leaving the question of specific personality(ies) aside, how do we as linguists (of any stripe) better present the work we and our colleagues do for effective public consumption?

I got a number of good responses, so here’s a summary along with thoughts about each. These are my personal opinions, so feel free to disagree—vehemently if you like.

Who is linguistics’ most prominent communicator, or who should be?

Who is it now?  The breadth of responses would suggest there’s no easy answer, and certainly no one with the public exposure of Sagan or NDT (not surprising, as linguistics doesn’t have anything near the profile of astronomy or astrophysics, nor even the name recognition of, say, biochemistry, in my opinion).  But some names that came up were:

Noam Chomsky – Okay, this one was mostly suggested as a joke, but he’s worth discussing, if only as a counterexample.  Noam Chomsky is one of the world’s better known linguists, but I would argue that in the greater public sphere, he’s actually better known for his political writing than his linguistics.  Though influential, Chomsky’s linguistics work is contentious (especially on Tumblr, I’ve noticed–I don’t know, maybe there are a lot of anti-generativists or something), and he has a reputation as a bit of a bear toward people who disagree with him.  He’s also in his 80s, so perhaps not the face that a science communicator would want to present.

Daniel Everett – Maybe the anti-Chomsky in some ways, best known for his work with Pirahã which presented some significant challenges to Chomskyan notions of universality.  Chomsky, in fact, has called Everett a charlatan, so perhaps this speaks to a certain division in the linguistics community.  Coincidentally, Everett teaches just a few miles from where I live, so maybe I should run over and ask him what he thinks of this question.

John McWhorter – I do like John McWhorter.  I’ve found his popular linguistics books to be some of the most accessible I’ve read, well-researched and presented in an easily-digestible manner.  With the exception of a few hypotheses I view as unjustifiably weird (Phoenician sailors in 5th century BC Denmark? No, I don’t buy it), this is the kind of approach I know I’d like to see in more linguistics outreach.  The material is scientifically solid, but it’s just a plain good read.

Steven Pinker – Admittedly, I have mixed feelings about Steven Pinker.  While I enjoyed reading his books, I found myself in disagreement with a good chunk of the content.  I appreciate what he’s done to bring linguistics questions into the spotlight with books like The Language Instinct, I do feel that he (or his publicists) glom onto the OMG factor of the content without the same regard for the rigor of the science behind it (i.e. the language instinct theory has a lot of unresolved holes in it, but it’s still Pinker’s claim to fame).  His close affiliation with evolutionary psychology also concerns me somewhat, but I’m willing to admit that that’s just personal bias against some of what I perceive as sloppy conclusions in evo-psych work.

David Crystal – I haven’t read a whole lot of David Crystal’s work, though I do like what he’s done on the development of English.  He also did the video of Shakespeare’s original pronunciation, so he’s shown how he appears on video, which in PR is important.

Linguistics blogs – I hate to lump all these together, but there’s more on this below.  Some of the best sources of linguistics info is not to be found in books, but online.  On Tumblr, there’s allthingslinguistic, wuglife, linguisten, and superlinguo to name a few.  Yours truly also tries to find time to post interesting linguistics stuff when he has time.  Elsewhere, LanguageLog is one of the biggest language-oriented blogs around.  Blogs have the advantage of supporting a wide variety of topics and authors and so don’t have to limit themselves to a single focus.  You can be a “linguistics” blog as opposed to writing a single book just on etymology or language change or cognitive linguistics or something.

*deep breath*

Please check out the notes on the original post for more ideas.  There are plenty more, and a very diverse group not all of whom I’m familiar with, and I don’t want to give them short shrift.

One communicator or many?

Quite overwhelmingly, we seem to agree that many voices are better than one.  However, looking at some of the responses, particularly those regarding established academics, makes me wonder why a community should ask one of its established members, who is presumably already doing their own thing, to take on a new role they may not want.  Granted, some of the people listed above probably want a communicator-type role–that’s why they write–but if someone doesn’t want a role, there’s no sense in trying to pressure them into it.  Even if they agree, they wouldn’t be very good anyway.

Overall, I’d say groups like LanguageLog have it right–a community of subject communication wherein ostensibly many views can be heard and diffused rather than one person to a put a single face on a vast field.  This whole question was prompted by Cosmos and I framed it in terms of a Sagan or NDT figure, but even astronomy and astrophysics has multiple big-name communicators–Brian Cox, Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, and Bill Nye for a more general science approach, among many others (those just come off the top of my head).

How do we bring more linguistics work into the public eye?

This is the question I find most interesting. Marketing is crucial to any PR campaign, which is what this is. While we want to stimulate public interest, we also want to get good information out there undiluted.

In addition, with many university linguistics departments in funding trouble or in danger of being shut down, demonstrating the “value of the craft” is of paramount importance to those who love it. In a sense, marketing is too important to be left to the marketers.

Out of all the responses, I agree most with the sentiment that any good communication doesn’t limit itself to a small number of communicators. Linguistics is a vast field with lots of uncharted territory, and no two linguists are the same. Like rabbis, if you put two of us in a room, you’ll get three opinions (i.e. I’m a computationalist and a semanticist by training, but historical linguistics has also been a passion of mine before I knew CL was even a thing).

In my ongoing work in computational linguistics, I get exposure to a number of products that are “sexy” uses of linguistic theory.  Speech recognition is becoming more normalized, natural language technology is a growing part of our wired lives, both awesome and creepy.  There are apps that translate foreign signage on the fly for travelers all over the world.  Software like WordsEye is treading new and fun ground in human-computer interaction.  Hopefully my dissertation work will bring something to bear in these areas.  Regardless of whether the engineers behind, say, Siri or Google Translate, know the first thing about linguistics, it’s the linguistics that make these products work.  The problem with all this is that it’s all product, and so the science behind it is often hidden.  People care that it’s cool, not why it’s cool.

Bringing it back to Cosmos, what a program like that brings is an ability to simply ask the big questions without having to provide an answer (because we don’t know the answers).  In this, I feel that some of the work done in semantics, cognitive and psycholinguistics, and in the intersection of language and neuroscience might be analogous.  The questions of meaning are just that, and you don’t get a much bigger question than “What does meaning mean?”

I’m not sure I know the answer to this one, but I do know it’s an interesting and important question.

About nkrishna

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