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So how many diseases do you have?

So how many diseases do you have?

The arrival of the film Arrival in movie theatres recently was the biggest event of the year in the linguists’ cinematic calendar, if that's a thing. It's not often linguistics meets Hollywood.

In the film, the linguist Dr Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams – who is clearly hot but, thankfully, not too unrealistically hot) is called upon to decipher the language of aliens who have just landed on Earth. No big deal, just the future of the world depends on it.

Spoiler: she succeeds. Obviously.

So what's the problem? Banks is depicted as someone who knows such languages as Farsi, Mandarin and even Sanskrit. And it is this, apparently, that makes her a linguist. Because in the popular imagination, linguists are professional polyglots – no more and no less.

To be fair, the producers did consult with real linguists from McGill University, even borrowing a bunch of their books to appear on the shelves in Banks’s fictional office. But the film does nothing to dispel the polyglot myth. Tell someone you're a linguist and the first question is invariably, ‘So how many languages do you speak?’

Linguistics is not about learning many languages. Rather, it’s the scientific study of language – and that’s a very broad thing. Linguists may be interested in questions as diverse as: How did language first evolve? How can someone wake up from a coma and suddenly have a foreign accent? How to write an algorithm that will make Siri, the personal assistant of Apple, sound like less of a freak?

In theory, you could study all these questions and still be thoroughly monolingual. In which case, being asked at every dinner party how many languages you speak would be endlessly awkward: ‘Er, just the one actually.’

To be fair, the perception is not rooted in nothing. Back in the day, the people known as ‘linguists’ were often missionaries. In order to save the souls of the ‘savages’, they had to translate the Bible into their languages – which meant learning their languages first.

But today’s linguist could be an expert in anything from machine learning to language policy to forensic linguistics. Hence the well-known joke that asking a linguist how many languages they speak is like saying to a doctor, ‘So, how many diseases do you have?’

Alison Edwards

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