FW: What is linguistics? What is it good for?

Yokoyama, Olga olga at humnet.ucla.edu
Fri Oct 28 00:59:13 UTC 2011

Dear all,

I did not manage to respond to the early exchanges on this topic but since it has come back up again, I use this opportunity to share my 'meta' thoughts about linguistics in the academia today.

The question posed by Shannon's dean was about linguistics. As a department chair last year, I had to deal with the latest NRC reports, and I noticed that NRC now makes a distinction between the FIELD of linguistics and the PROGRAMS in this field. For the "programs", they take the program names as declared by the programs themselves. The FILED of linguistics thus contains PROGRAMS in linguistics, applied linguistics, cognitive science, language acquisition, language and speech disorders, modern languages, and a few more, a total of 52 programs. Among the top programs in the FIELD of linguistics, nationally, are the Johns Hopkins program in Cognitive Science, and my own UCLA program in Applied Linguistics. The criteria applied for determining the ranking ranges (the ranking ranges produced by NRC resulted from two kinds of analyses, sample analysis and regression analysis) include all the familiar parameters, e.g. faculty research, student support, time to degree, job placement, etc., and these are weighted. NRC website has the details in case you are interested.

The main point I want to make is that the field of linguistics is changing, and whether we agree with it or not, or whether we welcome it or deplore it, the change is relentless and irreversible. The field is now defined much more broadly than it was when I was a graduate student, and we are faced with this reality. The question the dean asked Shannon to address, i.e. "What is it good for?", is being asked increasingly more often. Again, we can deplore this fact, or we can try to accept it, but regardless of our reaction the question will continue to be asked of us, and on the way we answer it our program budgets, our faculty positions, and, eventually, our grants, will depend. This will happen regardless of whether we call our programs "Linguistics", or "Applied Linguistics", or "Cognitive Science" etc.

I was not trained as an applied linguist, but having moved to my current department I now see the FIELD of linguistics and linguists' mission rather differently from the way I did a decade ago. I now separate my own research interests from the field's mission in our society. In August 2010, our department responded to Arizona's DOE's plan to remove from classrooms all teachers who speak English with an accent. No explanation of what is meant by "accent" and how it is going to be measured was given. Our department responded with organizing an international "public conference" (among the registered participants were renown researchers who presented their research, local public school administrators, who participated in the round table forums, and UCLA custodians, who spoke from the floor) addressing these questions. The proceedings will appear at the end of this calendar year in Issues in Applied Linguistics. I think that we did the right thing, although raising funds for this conference and putting it together made it impossible for me to accomplish any research last summer. We linguists, and here I use the NRC's broad definition of the field, must be visible and intelligible to the public out there, i.e. to be able to answer Shannon's Dean's question well. Within our ranks, the proportion of "art for art's sake" and "useful art" need not, and should not be equal for all colleagues, because we all have different strengths, weaknesses and preferences, but every PROGRAM in the FIELD is going to have to answer this question in a way that satisfies the public.

I still manage to do my own research (which is hardly "applied linguistics"), though I obviously cannot spend 100% of my working time on it. Still, I consider myself fortunate to be able to do what I do and make a living in the process, unlike 95(?)% of wo-/mankind, who spend 100% of their working time just to make a living.

Thank you for your attention.


Olga T. Yokoyama
Department of Applied Linguistics
University of California, Los Angeles
Tel. (310) 825-7694
Fax (310) 206-4118

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