linguistic anthropology

What *is* Linguistic Anthropology, anyway?

You can study language in a lot of different ways. You can study it as a formal system. You can study it as a distinctly human ability that tells us something about the human brain. You can study it as something that has to be learned.

But linguistic anthropologists typically do none of these. Instead we study language as social resource and social action. Language as communication.

It’s indisputable that we use language for reference — for “talking about things” — but we also use language:

  • to indicate who’s like us and who’s not;
  • to express our feelings about what we’re talking about;
  • to rank ways of speaking, individuals, and groups;
  • to present our identities and communities in particular ways…

Any time there are multiple ways of “saying the same thing,” these factors come into play.

Applied Linguistic Anthropology

Applied linguistic anthropologists look beyond reference to see what else is being communicated. In short, we look for the source of miscommunications and work to fix them.

Barbara Clark put it best: “‘Bad’ communication, miscommunication, and misunderstanding don’t happen in a vacuum – applied linguistic anthropologists can help show motivations for what’s being said, as well as work with managers, executives, and department heads to develop best practices to improve communication and safety, and increase efficiency.”

Further Reading

Thomas Orr on Why Every Company Needs a Good Applied Linguist.
Barbara Clark adds anthropology to Orr’s equation.