"So you’re a linguist. How many languages do you know?" Every linguist hears this question a lot. There’s even a meme about it. And in addition to over-use, there are several contradictory reasons why it’s deeply frustrating.
1. Linguistics isn’t about learning lots of languages. Except when it is.
Linguists as scholars work to analyze language and figure out how it works and why we can speak it. Unfortunately, there’s also another meaning for linguist which is a translator or person who speaks a ton of languages. Academic linguists refer to the latter as polyglots or hyperpolyglots. But, for example, the US military job descriptions use linguist to mean polyglot/translator. It’s a real meaning, but it’s like asking a baseball player if they hit balls using a small winged mammal. Not so much.
2. Speaking lots of languages doesn’t necessarily make you a better linguist. Although it might help.
There are many very legitimate and well-respected linguists who only really work in one language (Noam Chomsky being one of them). But all else being equal, having knowledge of multiple languages probably does mean that it’s easier for you to make comparisons between them, read papers written about them, and see how broadly applicable your theories are, which is probably useful.
3. Many linguists don’t speak lots of languages. But quite a lot do.
Even though it’s very much possible to be a monolingual linguist, some percentage of people do get into linguistics because they enjoy learning and speaking languages. So I would estimate very informally that maybe half of the linguists I know are bilingual or trilingual, about a quarter are monolingual, and about a quarter have four or more languages at a pretty decent level. And maybe 5 or 10 percent are true hyperpolyglots. Which is almost definitely greater than the general population.
4. The more languages you “know”, the more picky you get about what “know” means.
It’s people who don’t speak another language who think that learning a language is like learning to ride a bicycle: a few weeks of practice and you’re basically set for life. People who speak several languages tend to classify their languages on a scale of fluency, from “know a few words/phrases” to “can basically get by” to “comfortable” to “native-like”, and in between. And what about if you speak two languages that are very similar, or two dialects that are very different? No one who speaks more than 2-3 languages is going to give a simple answer to “how many?” So if you ask it, be prepared for at least ten minutes and maybe an hour on the process of learning each language, their relation to each other, and relative levels of fluency.
Like many stereotypes, “linguists speak a lot of languages” has a grain of truth but is by no means wholly accurate, which is probably what makes it both very common and very annoying.
So how do you make small talk with a linguist? Try asking “what got you interested in linguistics?” or “what area of linguistics are you interested in?” In fact, this probably works for most fields. For example, I expect that most geologists wouldn’t mind being asked about their interests in geology either. Rather than, say, how many pet rocks they have.