What the Heck Is an Applied Linguist?

What the Heck Is an Applied Linguist?

Telling people at parties that I’m an applied linguist usually gets one of three responses:


1.  a glazed-over facial expression

2.  “Uh…, excuse me, I think I’ll go refill this punch glass.”

3.   “So, how many languages do you speak?”

In the case of answers 1 and 2, it’s probably time for me to make my own trip over to the hors d’oeuvre table. 

Response #3 is actually a common misconception that linguists are polyglots (speakers of numerous languages).  If I’m feeling jovial, I sometimes answer “26”...and then wait for a reply.  Because I’m a teacher at heart, I usually answer more earnestly: While most applied linguists have studied foreign languages out of a general interest in communication, we are not necessarily mega-language learners.

In my own case, I have studied a dozen languages—anywhere from a few months (prepping for a business trip to Prague) to many years (undergrad major in German).  This doesn’t make me Google Language Translator.  Nor do I seek to be.

An applied linguist looks to use integrated skills, akin to a family doctor.  Your general physician is someone who is committed to a general field (medicine), but he/she has studied broadly enough (nutrition, pediatrics, cardiovascular health, obstetrics, internal medicine, etc.) to give practical guidance to a patient whose body is comprised of all these interlocking systems.

The applied linguist has typically studied phonetics (how language sounds are made), phonology (how sounds fit together as a system), morphology (the meaningful bits that make up meaningful sentences), syntax (how parts of sentences fit together), sociolinguistics (how language use is affected by society), psycholinguistics (how language is learned), historical linguistics (how language changes over time), and sometimes cultural anthropology (to know how different rules affect a speaker’s behavior). 

Because the applied linguist has this overview of how language works as a system, he or she can apply that knowledge in specific real-life situations.  Here are examples from four different fields.

In airline safety: One person specializes in listening to cockpit recordings from airline crashes to determine what aspects were due to communication failure.   This is done with an eye to improving cockpit communication and airline safety.

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In medicine: A colleague of mine, with graduate degrees in English and communication, has years working at a large hospital.  She coaches foreign-born physicians how to communicate with American patients in order to maximize patient understanding, compliance, and ultimately patient health.

In the law: This same colleague prepares foreign medical graduates for deposition and trial in malpractice lawsuits.  With her skills, she helps these physicians communicate their knowledge clearly, unemotionally, and in layman’s terms, so that jury members (everyday people) can understand a very technical story.

In industry: In my own work, I coach non-native professionals to fit into the American workplace, be productive, and feel at home.  On the cultural side, this involves coaching on community volunteerism, local sports traditions, and questions to ask (or avoid) around the water cooler.  On the language side, it includes pronunciation coaching so that presentations are clear and unambiguous.  It may also include coaching in the diplomatic language of criticism, rejection, reprimand, or postponement.

Want specifics?  Let me give you a huge global example and three local examples:

International P.R. blunder: After the 2006 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Swedish-born chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg stuck his foot in his mouth when he said BP was looking out for the “small people.” As a non-native speaker, he had incorrectly remembered the expression “little guy” (meaning an everyday person) but implied that the coastal residents were inconsequential.  Here are the details.


Local example 1: A Japanese engineer put up a flyer on an announcement board, listing a cottage for sale.  He added a post-it note saying, “On Sale.”  What he meant was “For Sale.”  Imagine his surprise when potential buyers approached him expecting a price reduction!

Local example 2: When meeting with a Chinese PhD one day, I noticed that he had a weak handshake.  Upon leave-taking, I felt his handshake again and was able to privately coach him about the importance of a strong U.S. handshake, something that connotes sincerity, intentionality, and strong character to Americans.

Local example 3: A Brazilian manager sent out an email to a subordinate with the opening line, “Let me give you some feedback.”  The poor employee was undoubtedly nervous throughout the reading of the email, waiting for some criticism to follow.  In fact, there was no criticism; the author had meant to say, “Let me give you an update.”  Now that he knows the difference, this non-native won’t make future correspondents nervous by using language that warns of impending bad news.


Language is a tricky boat to sail, but having the right navigation tools can make the seas a lot smoother.  Please share your examples of how coaching was able to avert disaster—or maybe stories of how disaster occurred in its absence.


Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.