(Another of my famously bad titles, but it stays.) What studying linguistics entails is not clearly understood, in my experience, in India. Having just finished two years of a post-grad in Linguistics, alongside only about ten students from the whole university, I have grown used to people asking me – Why! What now? And what exactly is linguistics, anyway? It would surely help to have someone better equipped to answer these questions.
The idea for today’s post came from a Linguistics blog I follow called All Things Linguistic, which features a series of interviews with people in linguistics-related jobs. This is not quite the same, but gives a way to interact with people in the field, learn what people do with degrees in Linguistics and attempt to answer some of the questions I tend to be asked; not to mention, along the way, spark in you an interest in linguistics if I can.
The first interview in what I hope will be a long series, is with Payal Khullar, who simplifies fascinating concepts in language sciences through her blog over at Language & Linguistics. You can check out her site, and keep in touch on Facebook and Twitter. Payal has had an interesting journey to linguistics and I’m glad to have her share it with us.
1. Tell us about yourself.
I am just an ordinary person with ordinary talents. I guess the best part about my personality is that I have always been super excited and passionate about whatever I do. In fact, I have hardly been able to do anything half-heartedly for more than a week in the past.
If you look at my career graph, you would say that I have dipped my feet into deep waters with extreme temperatures in my life. And, well, that is what I like about myself the most. From a studious scholar of botany, to a failed cartoonist, a well-paid online educator, and a not-so-bad content editor at a popular e-commerce website- I guess I have tried it all. I must say, however, that my life has become rather stable for quite sometime now.
My career took a serious turn after I cracked the JNU entrance exam. During the two years of Masters degree program at SL, JNU, I fell in love with Linguistics. Not many people know that I rejected a cool job offer at a well known publishing house before I joined IIT- Delhi.
At this moment, I am working as a research fellow and teaching assistant for Linguistics at the Humanities and Social Sciences Department of IIT- Delhi. My research areas include syntax, language variation, language processing and language acquisition.
Besides all of these things, I am an avid blogger and poet (well, almost).
2. Why did you decide to study linguistics?
Honestly, I never planned a career in linguistics. After an Honours degree in Botany from one of the best colleges in Delhi University, I started working in an e-commerce startup. Everything was more or less okay, and, then, one random day, I felt I want to go back to the drawing board and study something interesting; perhaps, something I haven’t studied before. Linguistics was an experiment. One that worked out quite well for me.
3. Did studying linguistics change you? How?
Yes, it did. Drastically, in fact. When I talk to people now, I constantly look for evidence of dialectal variation. When I interact with infants and kids, I recollect theories on language acquisition in my mind.
I have also become highly sensitive to power dynamics between languages and linguistic rights of minority communities, especially in multi-linguistic areas. It’s quite weird, but I judge someone’s character based on how they think about different languages and speech communities.
I guess, it is impossible to study something for years and not let it effect you on a personal level.
4. What are some common misconceptions about linguistics?
I think, all linguists of the world will agree with me on this. When you tell someone you’re a linguist or that you study languages, the first thing they want to know is the number of languages you can speak fluently or the types of scripts you can write in. Then, they ask you which is the best language in the world. If you do not lose your cool, they will continue to discuss how they think Chinese must be difficult to learn for the kids in China.
Sometimes it gets difficult to make people understand that, as language researchers, we are not interested in studying any particular language. Linguistics is the study of language as a cognitive object, or as a social phenomenon. It is not about learning grammars and vocabularies of standard varieties of prestigious foreign languages.
Also, I don’t think a lot of us are aware of how research in linguistics has contributed significantly to smart phone technology, highly interactive user interphases, operating systems, online dictionaries, language translation, search engines, etc. People take language for granted. Commercial application of linguistics is not restricted to foreign language teaching.
5. What is some advice you wish someone had given you about linguistics / university / work?
I think, it’s very important to read classical, state-of-the-art works in Linguistics or, for that matter, in any field of study one is interested in. Often, at the undergraduate and even at the post-graduate level, students are taught theories and made to learn concepts without giving them a background on how those theories and concepts were introduced in their time, how they got accepted or rejected, how they survived or failed to survive criticism, and how they changed and developed with time. What we often read as a one line definition of something actually is a result of years of research and experimentation in the field. It is important to know that as well. It also sort of brings in motivation for research.
Also, no definition and no concept must be taught or learnt as gospel truth. We must not fear from deconstructing theories and redefining concepts.
6. Could you share any favourite linguistics quotes / books / blogs / videos / links?
There are some very interesting Ted talks on the subject. For instance, this one here by renowned Linguist Steven Pinker: What our language habits reveal. Pinker talks about how thoughts are linked with language. I think, every linguist and non-linguist must look at this once.
And then there is one that explains origin and evolution of language, language diversity, biblical myths, etc. using very cool animation. Check it here: How Languages Evolve – Alex Gendler.