Draw Me a Linguist
Aster E. O’Gnosis and Margo Llicso
Much has been made recently in certain circles of the stereotypical views children have of scientists, and how those views are changed after paying a visit to CERN—all reflected in the drawings of the children. (Drollette, 2010) The cliché says that children are our future, and the humanizing effect of the CERN visit on children’s perceptions may eventually be parlayed into an increase in the number of young people who choose to pursue science as a profession, which of course results in better enrollment in college courses, and thus more funding for science departments. We figured linguistics could probably use some of that action, too.
Thus we commissioned a similar study on the perceptions that children have of linguists, and how those perceptions would change after a visit with real linguists. Not to be outdone by a bunch of physicists, we decided to be a little more scientific in our approach. We randomly chose a university department (The Dauþuz Dauði University Department of Baltic and Non-Baltic Linguistics in Nāve Mirtis, Estonia), and took a group of local children (642 children, aged 11.4-13.2, median=12.4, μ=12.3, σ=0.7) to participate in a departmental event chosen at random from the departmental calendar by the departmental secretary. In order to keep the study properly double-blind (unlike the CERN study), we didn’t tell the children they would be visiting linguists in Estonia, and we didn’t tell the linguists at Dauþuz Dauði about our study, or that their visitors would be children.
However, before we took the little angels on their incredibly expensive trip (we’d chosen children local to us, not local to the department we’d be visiting—such are the sacrifices we make for the science of linguistics), we asked them to draw pictures of what they thought a linguist looked like, and gave them a battery of psycholinguistic sentiment analysis tests. A typical drawing is shown below.
The elements of the drawing reflect the typical perceptions the children had of linguists-in-the-abstract:
- linguists are pasty
- linguists are fussy
- linguists can’t dance
- linguists are bookish word nerds
- linguists spend too much time in dusty libraries
- linguists frequently use the IPA without justification
- linguists are ugly and their mothers dress them funny
- linguists are all sad polyglots who speak at least twelve languages
- linguists need unfashionable corrective prescription eyewear to see
- linguists typically have wan smiles that barely hide the fact that they have wasted their lives in an ultimately fruitless academic pursuit
After their visit to Dauþuz Dauði, when we told them that they had visited a bunch of linguists, the children’s perceptions of linguists changed radically. We gave the same battery of psycholinguistic sentiment analysis tests, and asked the children to again draw pictures of linguists.
The “after” picture below is by the same child who drew the “before” picture above, and is typical of the responses we received.
The elements of the drawing reflect the typical perceptions the children had of linguists-in-the-flesh:
- linguists are nasty
- linguists are hussies
- linguists can’t dance
- linguists are ogrish word nerds
- linguists spend too much time in libertine debauchery
- linguists frequently use their tongues without justification
- linguists are really ugly and their mothers dress them funny
- linguists are all sadistic perverts who have at least twelve toes
- linguists need unfathomable fetish wear to pretend to feel human emotion
- linguists typically have gaping maws that grotesquely demonstrate the fact that they have wasted their lives in an ultimately fruticose wanton pursuit
Early reviewers of this paper have repeatedly asked two questions. First, did pre-teens really use the word “fruticose”? Yes they did, albeit obviously incorrectly. Second, what was the nature of the academic event that we took the children to participate in? We don’t think this is particularly relevant, but for the curious, it was the 147th Annual Dauþuz Dauði University Department of Baltic and Non-Baltic Linguistics Morphosyntactic Bacchanalia, with a special theme of “Full Frontal Vowels and Nude Syllabic Nuclei”. (It’s not like we took them to the Trilled Tarts and Vibratory Vicars after-party. We’re serious researchers! We dumped the kids at the hotel and went back for the after-party.)
Regardless, the results stand for themselves, and the conclusion is self-evident. We should keep linguists away from children as much as possible if we want to achieve any of these worthwhile goals:
- prevent permanent psychological harm to children
- encourage undergraduate enrollment in linguistics courses
- keep linguists, as a group, from being considered likely sex offenders
Drollette, Dan, 2010. “A child’s-eye view of physicists”, International Science Grid This Week, Image of the Week for 16 June 2010.