Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Oftentimes a non-linguist may ask a linguist (I will use this term for students as well) which language is easiest to learn, how many languages they know, or if one dialect is “better” than another.
One option is to tell them to think of linguistics as similar to geology (on the simplest of levels, of course; I’m not a geologist and don’t plan on becoming one):
- A geologist studies rocks. They study their formations, how they change, and how they are similar and different from other rocks.
- A geologist may have a type of rock that they know extremely well, but try to understand a lot about the other types as reference.
- Society may place value on certain rocks, but that does not make one rock better than another to a geologist.
A scientific, descriptive approach to language is similar.
A linguist studies language. They study grammars of different languages, how they change, and how they are similar and different from other languages (among other things).
They describe language as it occurs naturally, not telling others the “correct” usage of a word.
Most importantly, a linguist recognizes all instances of language as equally valid, not privileging a certain dialect or language over another.
How do you explain linguistics to your peers?
So then asking a linguist how many languages they speak is like asking a geologist how many pet rocks they have?
The analogy I generally use when explaining what a linguist does is that a biologist looks at animals and plants and pokes them and figures out which parts are connected, a linguist does the same to language(s). And while some biologists mostly specialize in, say, frogs, it’s useful to have some knowledge of other animals or you won’t know whether the fact that frogs have two eyes is some unique characteristic or very common.
By this analogy, English is kind of like the lab rat of linguistics, in that the vast majority of work is done on it. I think this is problematic for a whole bunch of reasons similar to the problem of only researching lab mice which are outlined in this excellent Slate series. And then other much-studied languages are like other well-researched animals such as fruit flies and guinea pigs and chimps.