What’s Linguistics?

Linguistics may sound very foreign to secondary students (and in fact most people), as it is not a subject in the school curriculum, and as an academic field, it is relatively new and has a relatively short history.

Because of people’s unfamiliarity with the subject, and thanks to the unfortunate fact that all linguistics departments in Hong Kong are under the Arts Faculty,  there are a great deal of misunderstandings on the subject.

One question that I encounter most frequently when I tell others that I study linguistics is what languages I learn. In fact, although in linguistic studies we do encounter data from different languages (and sometimes very exotic ones!) very often, it is NOT our interest or aim to learn these languages. Instead, linguistics is the study of how language works and how we, or our human brains, process language.

In other words, contrary to what some people believe it is, linguistics is very much a scientific study of language, in the same way that geography is the scientific study of Earth, psychology the study of the mind, and biology the study of life. We collect data from different languages to justify our hypotheses on how language works, just like the way biologists observe the behaviors of different animals in order to find out patterns of life and living organisms.

Linguistics is a very interdisciplinary study which draws in a lot of the knowledge from other areas of research. It is often related to, although not limited to, the following fields of study: psychology, biology, sociology, philosophy, information science and physics.

The following briefly introduces some popular subfields in linguistic studies.


Phonetics studies how linguistic sounds can be generated. We study the physiology of the human oral cavity, and learn how various parts of it can work together to produce different sounds. We also learn, in more precise terms, how these sounds differ from each other. In addition, how we actually perceive sound waves that enter our ears is also a question that we are interested in.


In phonology we study how different linguistic sounds can affect each other in real speech. We also try to study and generalize rules that govern speech sounds in individual languages.


We try to understand the relation between “meaning” and language. We study the the meaning of “meaning”, and try to understand how “meaning” can be possibly processed in the human mind. 


Morphology is the study of word forms. We study how different languages can make use of different word forms to express different meanings.


Syntax is the study of sentence structures. Instead of the describing the grammar of a particular language, our more ambitious goal is to generalize syntactic patterns across different languages in the world and try to understand how our human mind processes sentence structures and hence enables us to understand language.


This is the study of how languages are actually used in the real world to achieve different social functions. For example, we study why people at different levels of the social ladder speak the same language different.

Language Acquisition

This is the study of how people actually learn languages. Research has shown that how babies learn their first language is in many ways different from how adults learn their second or third languages. What are the differences and why are there differences at all? These are the questions we are interested in answering.


Typology is the study of how different languages are related to each other. We study how different languages derive from their earlier ancestors, as well as how (and sometimes why) different linguistic features are used in different languages.