Linguistics is the scientific study of language and its structure, including the sounds (phonology and phonetics), words, and grammar (synatx, morphology) used in communication, and how such structures are used for communication. Linguistics innvolves not only the nature of language and how it is used, but also social, cultural, and historical factors that influence language. Linguists also study the structure of a language and how it changes over time, or in different communities, or how people learn and use language in particular contexts, such as language use in social contexts and how language varies across communities and individuals.
A general division can be made between theoretical linguistics and applied linguistics, and a number of more specific subfields exist along this continuum.
1 Theoretical linguistics
Theoretical linguistics, also known as general linguistics or "pure linguistics," focuses on the development and analysis of linguistic theory, without necessarily considering the practical applications of that theory. As such, it is concerned with understanding the fundamental principles that govern the structure and use of language, and with developing formal systems for describing and analyzing those principles. Thus, it is concerned with understanding and explaining how language functions as a whole system, say, in the minds of language users. This also entails a theoretical explanation of how children learn their first language via immersion, since first langauge acqusition can shed light on the underlying abstract structures of language.
As a theory concerned with how language works as a system or in human minds, it tends to be fairly abstract. The goal of theoretical linguistics is to provide a comprehensive and rigorous understanding of the nature of language and how it works. This knowledge is used to inform the development of applied linguistics, as well as to contribute to the broader fields of cognitive science and computer science.
Theoretical linguistics encompasses a wide range of subfields, including syntax (the study of the structure of sentences), semantics (the study of meaning), phonetics (the study of speech sounds), and phonology (the study of sound systems in language). To some degree, it also overlap with or include more specialized subfields such as sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, and computational linguistics. Theoretical linguistics research generally involves working within one or more theoretical linguistics paradigms in the field, such as cognitive linguistics, generative linguistics, or functional linguistics.
2 Applied linguistics
Applied linguistics is the branch of linguistics that focuses on the practical application of linguistic theory and research. It is concerned with the ways in which linguistic knowledge can be used to solve real-world problems related to language use, langauge teaching and learning, and communication. Some examples of areas where applied linguistics is applied include the following.
- Second language acquisition and language teaching: Developing more effective methods for teaching and learning languages
- Language assessment: Designing tests to evaluate language proficiency
- Translation and interpretation: Understanding how translation works, and improving translation and interpretation services
- Language planning and policy: Working with governments and organizations to develop policies related to language use
- Sociolinguistics: Examining the social and cultural factors that influence language use and language change
Along the continuum of theoretical and applied linguistics exist a number of specific subfields. It should be noted that what is commonly called 'grammar' in linguistics is comprised of all systems that involve or are based on regular patterns or regular, systematic rule-like behavior--namely, syntax, morphology and phonology.
- Phonetics: The study of speech sounds and how they are produced, transmitted, and perceived
- Phonology: The study of the sound systems of language and how they are used to convey meaning
- Morphology: The study of the internal structure of words and how words are formed
- Syntax: The study of the structure of sentences and how words are combined to create meaningful sentences
- Semantics: The study of meaning in language, including how words and sentences are interpreted
- Pragmatics: The study of how context influences the interpretation of meaning in language use
- Sociolinguistics: The study of the social and cultural factors that influence language use and language change, and how language is used in real social contexts, or in specific communities or cultural context
- Psycholinguistics: The study of how the mind processes language and how language is used in thought and communication
- Computational linguistics: The study of natural language processing and the development of computational models of language
- Historical linguistics: The study of how languages change over time and how they are related to one another
- Anthropological linguistics: The study of the relationship between language and culture, including how language is used in social and cultural context.
4 Research methods
Since linguistics spans a range from theoretical to applied, a wide range of research methods are used to study language, language structure, use, and variation. Theoretical, inductive research is common in theoretical areas, and in the applied areas, empirical research is common, either qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods research. Different research areas make use of the following areas and methods.
- Fieldwork: C data through observations of language use in naturalistic settings, such as through participant observation or interviews. This is often associated with anthropological fieldwork, but analogous techniques can involve observing and/or recording real-life conversations or school classrooms.
- Corpus linguistics: Using large collections of naturally occurring language data (known as corpora) to study language use and uncover patterns in language.
- Experimental and quantitative methods: Using controlled experiments to study language processing and production, generally with statistical analyses.
- Qualitative analysis: Interpretation language data through detailed analysis and interpretation of meaning.
- Case studies: In-depth qualitative study of a single individual or language community to examine language use in context.
- Computational techniques: Computational modeling, artificial intelligence, and natural language processing, to analyze language data and build computational models of language.
- Cross-disciplinary methods: Linguists may also draw on insights from related fields, such as psychology, anthropology, and computer science, to inform their research.
5 Open questions
There are many open questions in linguistics, some of which include:
- How do children learn language so quickly and easily, and how does this process differ from adult language learning?
- How do we produce and comprehend spoken language so quickly and effortlessly, and what goes wrong in language disorders such as aphasia?
- How do the brain's language-related areas develop and change over the lifespan?
- What is the nature of language diversity and how has it arisen?
- How do linguistic and cultural practices shape and are shaped by each other?
- What is the relationship between language and thought, and how do they influence one another?
- How do we acquire and use grammatical constructions, and how do they vary across languages?
- How do languages change over time, and what are the social and cultural factors that drive linguistic change?
- How can we create computational models of language that capture its complexity and expressiveness?
- What is the nature of linguistic meaning and how do we use language to convey and comprehend meaning?