What Makes a Great Linguist?

There is a whole host of valid answers to this question, but arguably the most significant – at least in the field of translation and interpreting – is the ability to understand how a foreign language is used by its different native speakers in their day-to-day lives. The process of developing foreign language skills is often misconceived: it is commonly believed that proficiency in another tongue can be achieved through rigorous study in one’s native country.

This is true, although only in part. It’s a great start, and an even better one if you have a native teacher. But why is studying, even mastering a language at home not enough? Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum: its usage and meaning are shaped by the contexts in which it is employed. In real life, therefore, its application by its native speakers can often deviate somewhat from the language typically found in dictionaries and other reference books.

For example, in England you might dunk a biscuit in your coffee, while in the US your biscuit would be a cookie. In the States, a biscuit is actually a savory food eaten with gravy in the Deep South. Very different to the kind that the British enjoy with a cup of tea. Something similar happens with the Spanish word carne. In many Spanish-speaking countries this word takes its standard meaning, ‘meat,’ however, in Argentina it is used to specifically refer to beef. Meanwhile, in Brazil, Portuguese words for fruit grown solely in the tropics often have no direct translation in other languages since they simply don’t exist in other parts of the world.

These are just a few isolated examples of how language is molded by the context in which it is spoken, so imagine how many other similar cases can exist throughout the entirety of a foreign language. And of course, many linguists have had the embarrassing experience of discovering that a word they believed to have one perfectly normal meaning in one area of the world has a rather different  –  and often inappropriate  –  one in another!

Another way of learning how a foreign language is used in real life is by being in situations which are familiar and routine for native speakers of the language, but which you tend not to experience as a tourist, such as seeing a doctor. If you have ever seen a doctor outside of your home country, you will know that another health system can function very differently from the one in your home country. These kinds of experiences can be of great benefit to translators and interpreters, which is why it is recommended that language professionals live abroad for a few years during their careers.

This happened to me while in Peru, when I had to interpret between a friend and a local doctor. While I knew all the vocabulary necessary to explain my friend’s problem, from just a brief visit I learnt many new Spanish words frequently used in the medical field.

So, as we can see, a great linguist is aware that languages are not simply made up of lists of words and grammar rules which remain the same over time, but that their usage can vary greatly depending on where they are spoken, and inevitably change with time.

Trusted Translations‘ linguists are well-travelled individuals who have a strong awareness of the cultures they deal with in their work, enabling them to translate to the highest of standards. So, let us give you a free quote and avoid getting “lost in translation”.