What is linguistics and can it help you learn a language?

Linguistics is the study of human language, including its structure, history, acquisition, and practical use.

Linguistics may involve the study of foreign languages, but being a linguist doesn’t necessarily mean you speak several languages. The field is more about investigating the nature of language itself, and it’s even considered by many to be more of a science than an art. Surprisingly few of us know much about linguistics, however, and according to experts, that’s not for lack of interest but rather a flaw of our education systems:

“The problems that linguists face in communicating about our discipline mostly arise, I think, from the absence of any foundational teaching about linguistics in our elementary and middle schools,” said David Pesetsky, the Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics at MIT, in a recent interview. “This means that the most basic facts about language — including the building blocks of language and how they combine — remain unknown, even to most well-educated people.”

In this post, we’ll attempt to turn that trend around, helping to spread more awareness of linguistics and how they can support foreign language learning.

Group of women study linguistics.

What do linguists study?

Linguistics is divided into several sub-fields. As defined by scholars at UCLA, these sub-fields are as follows:


The study of speech sounds, including both the production of sounds by the human voice (articulatory phonetics) and the properties of the sounds themselves (acoustic phonetics). Linguists who study phonetics ask the following questions:

  • What are the sounds, from among all those that humans could make, that actually exist in the world’s languages?
  • What specially defines different “accents”?
  • Can speakers be identified by “voiceprints”?
  • What are the properties of sounds that would apply in computerized speech synthesis?


The study of how languages or dialects systematically organize their sounds. Phonologists concern themselves with the following:

  • What sounds contrast in one language but not another (answers to such questions explain why Spanish speakers have trouble with the difference between English sh and ch, or why English speakers have trouble with the different “u” sounds in French words like rue ‘street’ and roue ‘wheel’.)?
  • What sounds of a language can or cannot occur one after the other (for example, why can words begin in st– in English but not in Spanish)?
  • How do poets or writers or song lyrics intuitively know how to match the rhythm of speech to the abstract rhythmic pattern of a poetic or musical meter?


The study of word structure, including how they are formed as well as their relationship to other words in the same language. Morphologists look at the following:

  • To what extent are ways of forming words “productive” or not (e.g. why do English speakers say arrival and amusement but not *arrivement and *amusal)?
  • What determines when words change form (for example, why does English have to add –er to adjectives when making comparisons, but Hebrew does not add any equivalent)?
  • How can humans program computers to recognize the “root” of a word separated from its “affixes” (e.g. how could a computer recognize walk, walks, walking, and walked as the “same” word)?


The study of how words and morphemes combine to form phrases and sentences. Syntacticians examine these questions:

  • How can the number of sentences that speakers can create be infinite in number even though the number of words in any language is finite?
  • What makes a sentence like visiting relatives can be boring ambiguous?
  • Why would English speakers judge a sentence like colorless green ideas sleep furiously to be “grammatical” even though it is nonsensical?
  • How can languages express the same thoughts even though they construct their sentences in different ways (e.g. Why does English I saw them there mean the same thing as French je les y ai vus even though the order of elements in French is I them there have seen)?
  • How can humans program a computer to analyze the structure of sentences?


The study of the meaning of language, as opposed to its structure. This concerns the following:

  • How do speakers know what words mean (e.g. How does one know where red stops and orange starts)?
  • What is the basis of metaphors (e.g. Why is my car is a lemon a “good” metaphor but my car is a cabbage is not)?
  • What makes sentences like I’m looking for a tall student or the student I am looking for must be tall have more than one meaning?
  • In a sentence like I regret that he lied, how do we know that, in fact, he did lie?
  • How many meanings can be found in a sentence like three students read three books and why do just those meanings exist?

Disciplines of linguistics

In addition to these sub-fields, linguistics can be categorized into the following disciplines:

Historical linguisticsThe history and development of language.
SociolinguisticsThe use of language in social contexts.
PsycholinguisticsThe processing of language in real time production and comprehension.
NeurolinguisticsHow language is represented in the brain.
Language acquisition and bilingualismThe acquisition of language(s) in children and adults.
Anthropological linguisticsThe use of languages in different ethnic contexts.
DialectologyThe study of language-internal variation.
Computational linguisticsLanguage as a formal algorithm.

Can linguistics help you learn a foreign language?

Couple discover that linguistics can help you learn a foreign language.

Good news: it can. Researchers have been studying the application of linguistics to foreign language learning for many years, resulting in a wide range of tips teachers and learners can adopt. One example is the use of metaphors to learn vocabulary.

In his book Cognitive Linguistics, Second Language Acquisition, and Foreign Language Teaching, Michel Achard, Professor of Linguistics at Rice University, writes: “Thinking and communicating abstract thought requires metaphor. Whenever genuine communication takes place, abstract ideas may be expressed, and thus figurative language may be needed. Metaphor provides learners with a tool to extend the meaning of simple, concrete words to denote more complex, abstract concepts for which they have not yet acquired the precise term.”

This is just one instance of how concepts from linguistics can be harnessed to master your target language. Once you start cultivating an interest in linguistics yourself, the possibilities will seem endless.

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