How many languages do you speak? Do you know all the eskimo words for snow? Are you going to correct my grammar? These are a couple of common questions I get when I say to other people "I think I want to be a linguist..."
So what do linguists do? When I first went into university I had a final elective to choose for first semester. I'd always loved English at school, I'd always had my nose stuck in a book ever since I was 7 and I'd always loved discussing great literature and plots and fantasised about becoming a great novelist. So I was destined to do English. But then the little description about this tucked-away under-the-radar subject called Linguistics aroused my curiosity. Quite a few years on, I wore my black graduation gown and held in my hand my Bachelors with a major in low-profile Linguistics. More than that, I walked out of uni with an incredible passion and fascination for languages that will stay with me for the rest of my days.
Linguists study language. All aspects of it. Just to give you a small sample: sounds and sound changes, dialects and accents, sentence structures, words and word changes, the brain and its connection to language, relationships between languages, learning first and other languages, translations...and the list goes on. But the most important thing for me is that all language is about communication. Humans communicate in a particularly distinct way.
Linguists try to work out features that are common to all languages. This can be thought of as a 'universal' approach to language. Questions asked here will be something along the lines of "What do all languages share?" and "If I have this in Language A, will I also see this in Language B?" If we take sounds as an example, we know that in English there are two sounds represented by the letters 'th' (as in the words "bath" and "they"). Do other languages share this sound too? Yes, but not all. A lot of my Asian students have trouble pronouncing these 'th' sounds because their languages don't have them. So in learning English, they also have to learn these new sounds.
Another feature of language frequently studied is address terms. In English we can call the same person "Mr. Jones," "Sam," "sir," "you" or, if you're a stereotypical male speaker of Australian English, "mate." All of these indicate the relationship between the speaker and the addressee, and we all adjust our language depending on the situation. If you're good friends with Sam, it would sound quite strange to call him "Mr. Jones". On the other hand, if you've never met him before and start calling him "Sammy-buddy" straight away, he might decide to cross the street the next time he sees you coming.
These are just two examples of different aspects of language studied by linguists. Linguistics tries to draw out common features across languages. In doing so, linguists highlight the nature of human communication and the social practices and beliefs of a group of human beings. So to answer the questions posed right at the beginning: I speak three languages, the number of words regarding 'snow' in Inuit is a great myth and no, I don't believe that being a linguist means that I'm a grammar-Nazi. I'm just interested in exploring human communication.