Why study language? by Philippa Law
It's easy to think of reasons why studying language might be fun (well, I can think of plenty), but perhaps it's not so obvious why linguists' work might actually be useful too.
Peter Trudgill sees his job as providing people with true information about language, to help set aside the irrational thoughts about language that we're all prone to. "This," he says, "is important for all sorts of reasons to do with fairness, equality and even the future of humanity."
Since languages are a mark of identity and culture, they are often an issue in cases where minorities are persecuted. As long as governments continue to assert that some languages are 'not good enough', there will be an excuse to oppress the people who speak those languages. The more linguists do to highlight the misconception, hopefully the weaker those governments' claims will be.
"...student teachers judge a child's abilities on their speech more than on the strength of their schoolwork."
Understanding our own linguistic prejudices can be helpful in avoiding discrimination closer to home. Linguists have shown, for example, that student teachers judge a child's abilities on their speech more than on the strength of their schoolwork.
Had the judges in two US custody cases known what any linguist could have told them - that being bilingual isn't harmful to children - they might have acted differently. In 1995, one judge accused a mother of child abuse for talking to her 5-year-old daughter in Spanish. And as recently as 2003, another judge ordered a Hispanic father to speak mainly English to his daughter as a condition for rights to see her.
Linguists' assurances that sign languages are languages just like spoken ones has - after many centuries of discrimination - improved attitudes towards the Deaf, as well as education and facilities for Deaf people.
Studying accents and dialects can help police trace or eliminate suspects. Forensic linguists can help identify voices on tape - voice 'ageing' techniques were used to try and catch the Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer, who sent audio tapes to police claiming he was the killer.
Knowledge about normal and abnormal language helps doctors to diagnose certain illnesses, such as stroke, and to determine the nature and location of head injuries. Linguistics is playing a major part in finding out how the brain works.
Research into language has been vital to the development of new technology too. Voice recognition software, hearing aids, artificial intelligence, speech synthesis and even predictive text on mobile phones are all dependent on detailed analysis of how language works.
Linguists can help historians and archaeologists by using their knowledge of how languages typically change. Demonstrating that languages are likely to be related or have been in contact with each other can confirm theories about people's movements or behaviour in the past. Linguistics has also had an impact on the interpretation of religious texts.
Improving the standards of teaching (and foreign language teaching in particular), is one of the goals of applied linguists. A study in Northern Ireland showed that children pay more attention to things said in an accent that arouses group loyalty. That kind of observation could, for example, help schools choose the right person to lead sex education lessons.
Linguistics is also good for business. Knowing more about how different people and cultures behave in conversation can be valuable information, as it helps staff to be more accommodating towards their clients.