Ball State University professors Mai Kuha, Mary Lou Vercellotti, Megumi Hamada, and Elizabeth M. Riddle share what role linguistics has played in their life and what it has grown to mean to them.
Languages have always had a central role in my life. Three languages were used regularly in my family when I was a child. In my teens, I tried to teach myself Arabic, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, Old Norse, and Russian. I managed to get my hands on some books on linguistics somehow, even though no one I knew had ever heard of it.
I read about Washoe, the signing chimpanzee, who was about my age, and I came to regard her as a cousin I had never met. I read about the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” which is obviously very pleasing but was not presented for its aesthetic value, but for the purpose of showing that meaning and structure can be considered separately: the sentence is structurally fine but odd meaningwise. I began to learn that observing the precise details of how people say what they say can allow us to reach startling insights, to shed light on the inner workings of the human mind. Having always been introspective, I found it satisfying and intriguing to see a path towards understanding cognition more deeply, in a rational, systematic, evidence-based way.
For many years, I communicated with no one about most of these ideas. As an undergraduate, I tried to do the responsible thing and got a degree in computer science. Ultimately, I had the courage to come to my senses, and one day found myself in Bloomington, meeting with Dr. Kathleen Bardovi-Harlig to kick off my graduate work in linguistics at Indiana University. I remember nothing of that meeting, except that my gaze kept straying to a hanging on her office wall. There was text on it, a poem. The last line was shockingly familiar: colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
The momentous realization came to me that these ideas that had been my pleasant companions since an early age were actually shared by others. There was a whole community of people thinking about such things. For the next few years, my cohort geeked out together happily, although one of my classmates was the odd one out: she had never invented a language when she was a child.
The systematic study of language helps us understand not only the individual human mind, but the workings of interpersonal interaction and social structure as well. I became a sociolinguist, finding comfort in how life’s seemingly unpredictable and constant swirling from one chaotic state to another turns out to be patterned after all. There are charts, variables, theories. There are even taxonomies of the kinds of social meanings that people might convey, and reasons for the ways in which details vary from one culture to another.
About a decade ago, I got to feeling that I needed to do my part to address social and environmental injustice, and have been doing work on ecolinguistics since then, studying how we use language to talk about the environment.
In short, linguistics has been an indispensable and powerful tool that has helped me understand more and more, in expanding circles of concern: my own mind in the self-centeredness of my youth, social interaction at a later stage, and now, the larger society of humans among other life on this planet. I can’t imagine any other path in life that could have been this rewarding and this much fun.
Linguistics is the study of language, its parts, and how they are put together to express meaning. In my view, linguistics is a skill (a tool in your toolbox) that can be used in any major, in any profession. It’s related to rhetoric and composition, but linguistics can focus more narrowly (such as on word formation processes) or more broadly (such as communication strategies among the world’s languages). Most obviously, if your goal is to be an English teacher, knowledge of linguistics gives you a deeper understanding of the language as a linguistic system by requiring you to analyze it. Linguistic awareness is indispensable when teaching English, which is especially useful when a student asks why we say/write it a particular way. Likewise, if you want to learn (or teach) a foreign language, knowledge of linguistics facilitates finding patterns and contrasts in languages, and those connections make the language learning more robust with deeper cognitive connections. The study of language patterns and contrasts is also beneficial in fields such as computer science because computer code is a language (albeit not a natural language but an invented one); linguistics is used in the algorithms used by Google and Amazon.
The words we use and the sentence structures we use, our language choices, represent, in part, who we are. (Right now, I’m highlighting my identity as a professor by using a mostly academic style.) Understanding this relationship between language, culture, and identity is valuable in any career where you work with people and/or language. This combination moves beyond teaching and writing to just about every single career, to name a few: sociology, social work, psychology, anthropology, law, politics, history, communications, journalism, business, marketing, advertising, etc. Linguistics gives us the tools to analyze and appreciate the cleverness of Apple’s slogan “Think different” and the subtle incongruity of McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I teach mainly in TESOL and applied linguistics, and my research is in psycholinguistics, particularly in second language reading and vocabulary. When I was an MA student, I came to know the psycholinguistic theories of word recognition and became fascinated by the research. Some of the questions addressed are: How do we recognize a printed word? What kind of information do we extract from a printed word and then process in our brain, to access the meaning of the word? How are these processes different in other languages? The work in this area of research definitely impacts instruction and clinical psychology (e.g., language impairment, dyslexia). It can also extend to the field of language technology (e.g., machine translation, voice detection systems, such as GPS and artificial intelligence). Language is a tool for us to express our thoughts and to preserve our culture. Psycholinguistics addresses the mechanism of how language is processed in our brain.
Another area of interest is adult ESL teaching. Research in this population, which usually consists of older refugees or immigrants who have no English learning before arriving in an English speaking country, shows that many of them have no prior formal education. I became involved in a program for refugees and immigrants from Burma and Thailand. How would you feel if you went to a foreign country where you had no knowledge of the language and culture? There is a growing need for qualified ESL teachers in this kind of program. If anyone is interested, join us in the TESOL program in our department!
Given that language is a species-specific phenomenon, linguists consider it to be a window into the human mind. All languages are enormously complex, and hoards of linguists spend their entire lives trying to document this complexity. Yet children are quite fluent in their native language by about the age of 4, though they will continue to learn vocabulary and refine a few grammatical structures and features of pronunciation. In fact, the smartest computer program cannot interpret language as well as an eight-year-old. Linguists find this apparent paradox endlessly fascinating. Among other things, we study the structures of the languages of the world and their use in context to come up with hypotheses about the underlying cognitive organization of language that makes such rapid learning possible, and we look at how language reflects aspects of human social interaction. Linguists are also interested in how languages change and in the cognitive and social processes involved in the learning of foreign languages, among many other areas of inquiry. The knowledge gained by such study has practical implications, such as for teaching literacy and for speech pathology, in addition to helping us better understand an essential characteristic of human beings.