A Linguist, a Polyglot and a Translator Walk Into a Bar…

A Linguist, a Polyglot and a Translator Walk Into a Bar





The more I write the more it becomes painfully and abundantly clear that outside of language circles, the general population does not really understand much about the practical aspects of language or the differences between many of the titles bestowed upon various roles within the language community.

Many people have done no more with language than master (hopefully!) their own native tongue and perhaps taken a course in a secondary language while in school. But whether you’re a diehard language enthusiast or a newcomer to the language learning community there are certain terminologies that are important to bear in mind when discussing the multifaceted landscape of language and linguistic individuals.

I’ve written this piece to better explain to you the differences between translators, interpreters, linguists and polyglots – titles often used incorrectly to describe members of our community.





Translator vs Interpreter

A common misconception is that people only learn languages to convert one language to another.

This is because normally, the only time someone sees a need for a multilingual person is when something needs to be translated or interpreted into their own language. They may not even understand the distinction between these terms, which is not entirely their fault. Even the media frequently seems to confuse “translator” with “interpreter” when dealing with a person that does not speak their language.

An interpreter is used when people are speaking in real-time, while a translator is used when someone needs text to be read or converted to another language. The skill sets required for each are very different and should not be confused with one another; a person that acts as one may not be suited for the other and vice versa.

Believe it or not, it matters a lot, especially to the translation and interpreting communities who -surprise, surprise – take this stuff very seriously.

An interpreter needs to have a huge knowledge of vocabulary in their  language of choice and the ability to make an immediate translation. A translator should also have a great vocabulary for translating written text, but he or she also has the opportunity to rely upon other sources and, while still often on a tight schedule, is able to take more time to acquire the optimal terminology for a specific website, advertisement, article or any number of other publications.

The translator has the time to think about how to structure sentences properly as well as the ability to make corrections later before a final submission to their client. An interpreter needs to have the ability to construct sentences that make sense to their clients immediately. They must also have a working knowledge of recent changes to the language, like idioms and slang, so as not to misunderstand what the persons they’re interpreting for might actually be implying .

As an example: if the phrase “This course is a piece of cake” was to be interpreted literally into many languages other than English, it would make no sense. What does learning have to do with dessert? Idioms like that are also more common in spoken language, whereas written language is usually quite a bit more formal and thus less likely to employ such  informal phrases or slang.

Linguists

For whatever reason, most people outside the field of linguistics don’t seen to have a clue as to what linguistics is actually about.

Many people seem to be under the delusion that a “linguist” is someone who simply knows many languages. If you’re a linguist you’ve probably heard this assertion before, rolled your eyes, and launched into a tirade about the degree to which that’s not what you do!

In fact a linguist can be monolingual! It’s somewhat uncommon due to the nature of the field, but being a language scientist does not always require multilingualism in its participants.

The best way I have seen this term explained is that a linguist is one who studies the science of language, which includes the physical aspects of languages, such as their sound structures, syntax, relation to other languages and culture, and their evolution. Various linguistic terminology can be tossed in, such as “morphology”, “semiotics” and “phonology” to further confuse the outsider.

It could be explained that linguists sometimes do learn multiple languages, and are occasionally polyglots or language learners themselves, but are normally more interested in the components, not the entire entity, much the way a nutritionist is more interested in the value of individual foods and how they can come together to promote better health while a chef is of an artist, creating the meal as an experience. The chef might be interested in the health value of the ingredients and the nutritionist might cook some meals, but they are not to be confused, they simply work with the same medium: food.

I have examined some of the more famous linguists and their lives. One of them was the Swiss born Ferdinand de Saussure who is widely recognized as the creator of the modern theory of structuralism as well as the father of modern linguistics of the 20th century. He laid the foundation for many developments in linguistics, and his ideas of linguistics as part of a general science of signs, which he called “semiology” or “semiotics” influenced many generations of contemporary linguists.

Many language enthusiasts could probably say they have heard of de Saussure, and some might even be able to say what he did. Most would likely not understand references, however, because it’s most definitely not relevant to learning a language in most cases. Saussure could certainly be considered to be a polyglot, for he did learn Latin, Sanskrit, Greek, English, German and French as a youth, then later added more to his lingual collection.

Another major player in the field of linguistics was Edward Sapir, most famously known for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which outlined his observations on how linguistic differences have consequences in human cognition and behavior. That is, our language affects our views and actions. Many language learners have at least heard of the hypothesis, even if they know nothing of the men – Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf – behind it.

Sapir also contributed greatly to the classification of Native American Indian languages, so his name also might be known by anyone who studies those.

My point is; that while linguists have certainly made many contributions to language learning, the effects of which might even influence some of what a language learner might deal with, but linguists and multilinguals or polyglots are not interchangeable.

Multilinguals

The terms bilingual and trilingual are probably understood – meaning a person speaks two or three languages, respectively. However, I find personally that those terms are usually reserved for people that learned their languages naturally, like second generation immigrants to a country in which they learn the native language of their new country while also speaking their own native tongue within the family. In some parts of the world, like parts of Canada, where the population often speaks both English and French, with both of those being official languages, bilingualism is a fact of daily life.

Multilingual can also be used as a simple basket term for anyone who speaks multiple languages – usually more than two.

Polyglots

So what is someone that learns several languages? People adopt a variety of terms. Some simply say they are multilingual while others describe themselves as language enthusiasts (a phrase I am fond of!)

The most widely used term I have encountered is polyglot. The word comes from the Greek “poly” (many) and glotta (language). While this should represent someone who speaks several languages, it has come to mean anyone speaking more than two or three. Not everyone who knows a few languages feels comfortable with calling themselves polyglots – I certainly don’t consider myself to be a polyglot -, however, feeling that term should be reserved for someone that speaks more languages than they do.

There is a related term sometimes used – hyperpolyglot – meaning a person that speaks more than twelve languages. The term omniglot means “all languages”, but I have never heard anyone refer to themselves in that manner, since it is impossible for anyone to know all 7000+ languages.

Hyperpolyglots

They are the rock stars of the language world: hyperpolyglots are a very rare animal – the unicorns of the language enthusiast community.

While polyglots are often inspired by other polyglots, the true hyperpolyglot is the pinnacle of language greatness, a title that often gives way to great envy, skepticism and criticism. Just as celebrities in society are fawned, so are the hyperpolyglots discussed, tested, and often dismissed as unrealistic.

Why such a critical look at these individuals? I think it is a mixture of jealousy that someone could exhibit such super human qualities as well as the general feeling of mistrust at such bold claims. One might accept that a person could be a chef in a restaurant, but not a master chef, renowned throughout the world.

Conclusion

It’s important, within the language community, to know the difference between these categories. Many linguists are polyglots, many polyglots are interpreters, and some linguists have been known to interpret, but in general it behooves the average Joe to know the difference.

Which category do you belong to? Which of these do you most closely identify as? Leave a comment and let me know!




Aside:

This piece was co-authored by Brian Powers of LATG and Erik Zidowecki of Parleremo, which you should check out here! If you’re a fan of Erik’s writing you can find more of it at his own blog View from the Town.

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  • Fantastic post and sometimes I wish more poeple, specially employers could consider this. Don’t be afraid to ask your employees for language test results. I’ve seen many people claiming to speak an “advanced level of English” (since they were in the advanced level of their school classes), yet they have no knowledge of how to apply it in a working context and such. Sure, exams may be expensive and you may have to renew your credentials every now and then, but it’s probably a way to take language knowledge seriously in the business world.

    I have sometimes wondered about making the jump to translation services, but I’d require another degree and other things I’m not willing to spend time or money than the one I have, and I have my own criteria to say you can know a language fluently, that is understanding and being to interact in different contexts (from a daily life one to a working or academical one).

    • I also think that there are varying degrees of fluency. For me comfortable conversationalism is fluency enough. Sure, if I wanted to take university courses in a foreign language I’d need a higher level, but if I can carry on a conversation without any issue on just about any normal topic that people encounter in day to day life – that’s good enough.

  • Shazia Aziz

    very interesting and revealing facts!

    • Thanks for reading! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • Meredith Cicerchia

    Great post Brian- I typically describe myself as an applied linguist but no one ever has any idea what that means :). Even my parents can’t seem to get their head around the fact that I am both an applied linguist and a polyglot ad that the two mean completely different things!

    • Hi Meredith, thanks for reading. Hopefully your family gets it eventually.

      I think linguists are frequently polyglots (or at least bilingual), This isn’t really helped by movies like the Disney title Atlantis which actually features a linguist as the central character – which is certainly cool! While he IS there to study the language linguistically, he is also treated like a translator and interpreter by his companions.

      Work hazard, I suppose.

  • Hi, Brian and Erik, really good post! Thanks for a useful way of distinguishing between terms that are confusing to many. An interesting sub-category to linguistics worth mentioning is “applied linguistics,” an interdisciplinary field that focuses on real-life language issues. In this field, research is carried out on how people acquire a language and how they actually communicate. Reading down, I just noticed, Meredith Cicerchia, that you call yourself an applied linguist. There you go! For me applied linguistics is the most interesting sub-field of linguistics. (I too call myself an “applied linguist” but always have to explain what I mean. Paul Pimsleur’s research was in that field and courses at the Defense Language Institute are based on findings in applied linguistics.)

    • Thanks Ulrike!

      Applied linguistics would have been a great addition to this list, I’m sorry we didn’t think of it earlier. We’ll have to arrange a piece dedicated solely to that!

      • It’s just a small piece in the big picture, Brian. And, for us language learners “applied linguistics” reminds us that research into language learning (language acquisition) can be very real and practical.

  • Great article; I particularly liked your description of hyperpolyglots, which is a term even harder to explain to those outside the community than all the others. The answer usually is “Well, what sets them apart from normal polyglots?”

    Also, I’m so going to bring up this article when people ask me why I refuse to do live interpretation when I’m such an experimented translator. >:( I swear I don’t expect people to know it off the bat, but still.

    • Haha, I’m glad to have been of service. Maybe someday people will know the difference.

      You want to see something really annoying? Do a Flickr images search for “Linguists” and you’ll see one or two pictures of Noam Chomsky and the rest are of soldiers talking to Middle Easterners.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • Rita

    I am a multilingual for I speak 4 languages. I may be described as a polyglot then! I am also studying translation and interpretation at the university; however, I haven’t decided yet which field to specialise in. Therefore, I am for sure a language enthusiast!

    • We can all be language enthusiasts! I think you can be a polyglot if you want. There really is no clear-cut number that makes a polyglot – or a hyperpolyglot for that matter. Some have stated that 12 is the “hyper” line, but I’d call someone who speaks 8 or 9 languages to be a hyperpolyglot as well.

      It’s a fun grey area that is somewhat open to interpretation.

      Thanks for reading and for the comment! Good luck with the translating!

      • Israel Lai

        I read maybe in a certain new source that they define hyperpolyglot as 4 or 5. Now that’s an easier line 🙂

  • Really good job with this post! I had a great time reading it.

    • Thanks Ludovic! It always means a lot to know people enjoy my writing.

  • Great post! I’ve heard many times people saying “I’m a linguist” just because they can learn languages without effort. I simply can’t wipe off the smirk on my face 😉

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I get annoyed by that as well!

  • MirjamUrfer

    “Many people seem to be under the delusion that a “linguist” is someone who simply knows many languages.”: this is not a delusion. “A person who studies linguistics” is only the second meaning of “linguist”. The first meaning, according to Webster, Oxford and Collins, is, indeed, “a person who speaks several languages” or even “a person who has the capacity to learn and speak foreign languages”

    Also, I do know that many of you are not English native speakers. But if you are in a language profession, would it not be good if you were a bit more careful with your use of English, trying to read through your articles before posting them, checking for mistakes and illogical formulations?

    • Alicia Copeland

      First, the writer of this blog is a native English speaker. Second, excellent job with that run-on sentence while trying to correct someone though. You also managed to cherry-pick sources. Here’s what you could have found if you had looked for more than two mins:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistics – “”Linguistics is the scientific[1] study of language.[2]”

      http://www.gla.ac.uk/postgraduate/taught/englishlanguageenglishlinguistics/

      http://linguistics.fas.harvard.edu/

      http://www.linguisticsociety.org/what-linguistics

      The term “linguist” came from Latin to refer to a ‘master of language’. By the 1640’s the term was already being used to refer to a ‘student of languages’. Around this time time, ‘philology’ referred to the science of language, however since the late 1800s ‘linguistics’ has been used. It’s a common misconception that linguists study a bunch of languages in school and therefore laymen tend to use the term for when someone knows a bunch of languages. However, it’s more precise to use the term ‘polyglot’.

      You need to know what you’re talking about if you’re going to attempt to sound so condescending. Apparently all your comments on blogs are bitching about something though. Do you feel better about yourself?

      If you’re still confused then you can look here too:
      http://linguistics.ucsc.edu/about/what-is-linguistics.html

      • MirjamUrfer

        Dear Alicia,

        I never denied that “linguist” also has a technical meaning, describing a scientific subject (I can hardly deny that, since I’d otherwise hold my postgraduate degree in a non-existing subject :-)); however, the fact that people use it in the sense of “a person who knows several languages” and that the three major dictionaries of the English language authorise such a use makes it clear that speakers are under no delusion whatsoever when they use “linguist” in the sense of a person who knows several languages. Your references obviously refer to the meaning of “linguist” in the technical sense. However, to look at what is correct to say in English, it’s still the dictionaries we need to refer to. That’s nothing to do with my reading things superficially. It’s simply to do with my using the appropriate sources.

        As for the spelling and grammar mistakes both in the text itself and in the comment section, I’m rather shocked that linguists (and in the UK, that term also includes translators and interpreters, by the way) have so little awareness of how important it is to write well these days.

  • Re. linguistic terms, don’t forget good ol’ prosody!

  • Svetlana Garza

    I really enjoyed your article but I think you make it seem as if being a translator is much easier than being an interpreter, and while I agree that different sets of skills are needed for each I wouldn’t dare saying one is easier than the other. I think one skill you fail to mention when talking about written translation is the capacity to research, since “having the opportunity to relay in other sources” is not only a matter of their availability but of your ability to use them.
    Anyway,
    Thks a lot =) I like your writing,

    • Victoria Sandoval

      I agree! I’m a linguist but in my country there are not many jobs available for me so Ive worked both as an interpreter and a translator, I have to say translation needs a deeper knowledge of both languages, and you have to have great writing skills while being an interpreter requires less bookish knowledge and more emory abilities and people skills. Loved the article, tho.

  • Yasmin

    Thanks for that great article! I will definitely share it to everybody who doesn’t know the difference between all these terms!

    Especially English natives often tell me that I’m “such a great linguist!” just because I love to communicate in English even though I’m German.
    I consider myself as bilingual in German and English and I would love to learn more languages.

  • mimi boothby

    Where’s the joke?!? 😃

  • Chris

    Personally, I don’t identify as any of those… while most people will say I’m a polyglot, I don’t feel I’ve got a good enough grasp of any language to be one.

    I’ve got a degree in Linguistics but I can’t say I’m a linguist. While the field interests me and I like to read/discuss grammar, I don’t engage in it on a level with language philosophers. I once considered myself a bilingual since I’ve been speaking two languages since I can remember but I’m told it’s impossible because neither of my parents speaks more than one language.

    I’ve yet to be called a hyperpolyglot. I suspect it’s because the people who know of my language obsessions aren’t familiar with the term. Some didn’t even know there exists such a term as polyglot.