March 20, 2004

Linguistics in the ecology of academia

The author of the blog Tenser, Said the Tensor writes that

I got mentioned in a post on Language Log and my traffic more than doubled. That's right, I'm now solidly into the double digits. Boo-yah! It's the linguistics blogosphere equivalent of an Instalanche—it's a Logalanche!

Instalanche is defined here as

A sudden influx of thousands of hits that threatens to crush your server, brought on by a link from Glenn Reynolds at

This is flattering until you consider the numbers. As of this morning, the sitemeter stats for Language Log are an average of 969 visits and 2,345 page views per day, whereas the same numbers for Glen Reynold's Instapundit are 82,500 visits and 109,999 page views per day. Both numbers vary, since these are week-sized running averages of time series that have meaningful variation on time scales from hours to years. In both cases, the overall trend is positive -- Glen's total visits in February were about 25% higher than in November, and ours more than doubled over the same period. Details aside, I think it's fair to say that politically-oriented sites like Instapundit get two orders of magnitude more traffic than language-oriented sites like Language Log. So a Logalanche is a pretty small slide, alas.

This reminds me of something a publisher told me a few years ago. In the U.S., the number of students each year who take an introductory psychology course at the college level is about 1.5 million, while the number of students who take an introductory linguistics course is about 50 thousand.

It may seem like a natural feature of the intellectual landscape that 30 times more college students should learn psychology than linguistics, but from a historical perspective, it's nuts. Through early modern times, the foundation of all education was presumed to be grammar, logic and rhetoric; one of the greatest intellectual accomplishments of the 19th century was philology and the reconstruction of linguistic history; through much of the 20th century, linguistic anthropology was central to the social sciences, and the "linguistic turn" loomed large in philosophy; after 1950, formal grammars came to play a central role in the development of computer science, and issues in the psychology of language were at the core of a conceptual revolution in psychology.

How the field of linguistics squandered these natural advantages over the past century is a long, sad story. However, we can still be optimistic about the future. Discarding history in favor of intellectual zero-based budgeting, there are plenty of good reasons that basic linguistics should be taught in high school and that every college student should take an introductory linguistics course. Human experience and human nature are based on language and language use: you can't understand the human mind, human society or your own life without learning about what language is and how it works. You need basic linguistics to understand public policy issues like how to teach reading or how to inculcate language standards while respecting linguistic variation. It's essential for making informed decisions about the remediation of reading disabilities or speech impediments, planning the education of a deaf child, or dealing with the aftermath of a stroke. It's relevant for understanding and evaluating language-related technology, and necessary for developing it. It's helpful in teaching and learning any language-related skill, from spelling to rhetoric. The concepts and skills involved are useful in other fields of study, from sociology and history to physics and molecular biology. And, of course, it's fun.

It took a long series of unfortunate accidents and bad decisions, over several centuries, to bring the study of language to its current all-time low point in the ecology of academia. It would take a sustained effort over several decades to reverse this trend. It could happen, though -- and then being mentioned in a popular linguistics communications channel might really overload someone's cortical implant, or whatever the 2025 measure of high-tech popularity turns out to be.

[A note to the side: I compared enrollments in linguistics and psychology because those are the numbers I happen to know, and I'm taking college-level course registrations as a proxy for general intellectual mindshare. I believe that political science, economics and similar fields have total enrollments comparable to those in psychology, anyhow within a small multiplier in one direction or the other. But unless I'm missing something, there are relatively few psychology weblogs, and even fewer by academic psychologists or psychology students (though there are some, for instance Jonathan Baron's). The psych blogs that exist (even the clinical ones, like John Grohol's) don't seem to have especially large influence, at least to the extent that I can measure this through e.g. technorati link counts. I don't have an explanation for this, though I have a hypothesis. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 20, 2004 10:40 AM