Linguist or Language Professional? Know the Difference.

Summer travels and general busy-ness have prevented me once again from adhering to my weekly schedule. But since I am mainly doing this for my own benefit, I am only feeling half-apologetic.

Also this was admittedly a trickier one, as opposed to the last post of the “Know the Difference” series.
This distinction, the one between linguist and language professional, is not as clear cut as it could be. This is due to different usages in different contexts. So depending on who calls somebody (or themselves) a linguist and in what context, the word can mean different things. Which is why I chose to write this piece in the first place.
In academia linguists are those that study the inner workings of languages. In the translation industry ‘linguist’ can often refer to any language professional, especially translators, although they may not formally have studied syntax, semantics, phonetics/phonology etc.

This is not dramatic, but it is, I feel, unnecessarily unspecific. This is why I suggest the following simple and logical distinction between linguists and language professionals:

Linguists study or have studied human language in general or specific languages in particular, but beyond simply learning how to speak a language.
This includes classical linguists who study how a language is structured (syntacticians), how a language communciates meaning (semanticists), how languages are expressed through speech sounds (phoneticians) and what speech sounds a specific language contains (phonologists), as well as those who study the practical uses of language where more is communicated than what is explicitly said (pragmaticians) and the social funcitions of language (sociolinguists) as well as all those who work in applied linguistics, people who study how what we know about languages means for practical issues such as language teaching, speech therapy and yes—translation.

Language professionals make money using their language skills.
This includes all Translation jobs, like translator, interpreter, subtitler and other audiovisiual translators. And this is how I’ll use the term in this series of articles.
A slightly broader definition could of course also include occupations like audio transcription and copywriting—copy writers get paid to produce texts for specific purposes in their native language or possibly a second language—and many more. I would also count language teachers or speech therapists who have linguistic knowledge but now use it practically among the language professional.

The two are, of course, not mutually exclusive, but they are  not the same either. Many persons (like myself) certainly are certainly both, linguists and language professionals under these definitions, but there are people who only fall into one of the proposed categories. According to my definition, linguists are academics, while language professionals are practitioners. Often, however, the lines are blurred. Many people who study translation academically, as a branch of applied linguistics, also work as translators. This means they are linguists and language profesionals.

While in my opinion, every translator and interpreter should also have some understanding of linguistics, that is not necessarily a given. If you know two or more languages and you have experience converting texts from one language into another, you can rightfully call yourself a translator. But knowing a language is different from knowing how language works.

This is why to me, it makes sense to distinguish between linguists and language professionals, instead of using “linguist” as an umbrella term for everybody who has a language-related job.

Still confused about the difference between linguist and language professional? This cat feels for you.

Questions? Comments? Leave ’em below. Thanks for reading.



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