November 14, 2003

linguist:language::doctor:disease ?

Mark Mandel's home page includes a version of this aphorism, which he attributes to Lynne Murphy:

"Asking a linguist how many languages (s)he speaks is like asking a doctor how many diseases (s)he has."

I think I don't agree, but I'm not sure why not. Maybe I don't like to think of a language as being analogous to a disease, pace William S. Burroughs and Laurie Anderson :-).

[Update: I've gotten some complaints about being too terse and even careless in this post, notably from the redoubtable Language Hat. So I'll amplify a bit -- and of course our standing offer to refund your subscription fees continues to apply!

As I wrote in LH's comments section, I have mixed feelings about this aphorism because I feel that everyone (and especially professional linguists) should use as well as study multiple languages, just as a matter of principle; but I also recognize that it's possible for a monoglot to be a first-rate linguistics professional, and that command of several languages is often in any case irrelevant to the contributions that polyglot linguists make.

Thus Bill Labov is not a monoglot, as it happens, but I don't believe that any of his major contributions depend on his speaking or reading any languages other than English.

So in some sense I do agree that asking a linguist "how many languages do you speak" is making an essential mistake about what linguistics is. Even though I also think that the answer should not be "one."

This screed by "Spengler" in the Asia Times claims that inadequate attention to multilingualism is "why America is losing the intelligence war", and asserts that "[t]he average Hungarian headwaiter had a greater command of languages than today's doctoral students in comparative literature at American universities. " I wonder if this is true, or just an uninformed assertion made for effect. I don't know know any Hungarian headwaiters at the moment, but the comp lit grad students that I've met recently are reasonably polyglot. (link from A.L.D.)

I do accept the argument that the U.S. would be better off if more of its young people knew more languages, though!"]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 14, 2003 11:42 AM