a blank slate

a blank slate

Tag: linguistics

Linguistalks with Payal Khullar

(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.

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

In the last post, I mentioned a project. That is what has been killing my creativity for the past three months. The topic is metaphorical language; how it is stored and processed in the mind. Now, I don’t know if I am built for research, have a research bent-of-mind. I don’t know, for instance, how flattering it is that I got the idea for my first serious linguistics project from a science fiction novel (Embassytown by China Mieville, if it matters.) But over the past several weeks, I have managed to stumble and bumble along, and in this big jumble of data collection and experimental software and statistical tools, I have (almost) developed a taste for it. 
Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson is the first book I read post topic-selection. It is a book that is (un)popular for its intricate claims. I love it! The essence of the book is the claim that metaphors are the vessel for meaning. Linguistic experience is rooted in conceptual metaphors. 
We generally associate the word ‘metaphor’ with the literary device. Aristotle said something about a perfectly constructed metaphor being the awesomest thing ever (it’s been long since I quoted Aristotle, my memory is a bit rusty.) According to Lakoff and Johnson, we need to stop thinking of metaphors as some sort of flourish that poets add to their language and realize that it is something we all employ. It would be impossible to speak about ‘concepts’ without metaphors, that is, without likening them to concrete perceptual and physical processes. To explain what they mean, the first example they provide is that of the metaphor of ARGUMENT as WAR. 
Your claims are indefensible
He attacked every weak point in my argument. 
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument. 
I have never won an argument with him. 
You disagree? Okay, shoot! 
We cannot talk about arguments, without talking about war. The experience of ARGUMENT finds embodiment in the language of WAR. As someone who is entirely inept at arguments, always takes them as personal attacks and surrenders in every argument with a ‘Fine, I’m wrong. You win,’ I can personally attest to this metaphor. 
But that is not the end of their line of thought. What if instead of talking about ARGUMENT in terms of WAR, we adopted the language of DANCE? Imagine a culture where two partners are said to perform an argument, where claims are choreographed to aesthetically please, where strategies are twirls. Will the resulting act of communication be an argument at all? Not as we view it, at any rate. When the words change, they conclude, so does the experience, and with that, the very action changes.
The point here is that not only our conception of an argument but the way we carry it out is grounded in our knowledge and experience of physical combat. Even if you have never fought a fistfight in you life, much less a war, but have been arguing from the time you began to talk, you still conceive of arguments, and execute them, according to the ARGUMENT is WAR metaphor because the metaphor is built into the conceptual system of the culture in which you live. 
They give examples of other such metaphors, a stand out being TIME is MONEY. You can spend time, give someone your time, and so on. These are called structural metaphors, where the language is so structured that ideas are objects that can be spent, stored, buried, wasted and given. The authors stress however that these metaphors are only partially structured, so you can spend time, but there are no time banks like money banks. The metaphors of time don’t hold true for all the structures and linguistic usages of money. 
Another interesting kind of metaphors is the orientational one. Anything that is GOOD is UP and BAD is DOWN. So your spirits rise, you are at the peak of your career, you do high-quality work, something boosts your confidence. In contrast, you fall into depravity, you are under someone’s control and so on. The authors explain again that these distinctions are not randomly assigned but based on a network of physical and cultural experiences, that may vary across societies according to what is valued more and what needs to be brought into focus. They give many instances, so many instances that you are overcome with awe by the sheer power of their observation and inference-making skills. 
Eventually, things begin to get really complex, when you see that ARGUMENT is conceptualised as more than just WAR. There can be an ARGUMENT is a BUILDING metaphor (his claims were shaky) or an ARGUMENT is a JOURNEY (you can’t retract your claim now, having come so far.) This is where the arbitrariness of such a descriptive piece of writing as this book begins to show through. All the hypotheses proposed by Lakoff and Johnson are strictly experiential and with every new page, they stray away from language science and into the realm of philosophy. This is not necessarily bad.
Towards the end of the book, they talk about the meaning and subjectivity of truth. How any statement is true only relative to some understanding of it. France is hexagonal, Missouri is a parallelogram, Italy is boot-shaped. All of these are true to a little boy drawing a map in school and laughably wrong to any self-respecting professional cartographer. 
It is because we understand situations in terms of our conceptual system that we can understand statements using that system of concepts as being true, that is, as fitting or not fitting the situation as we understand it. Truth is therefore a function of our conceptual system. It is because many of our concepts are metaphorical in nature, and because we understand situations in terms of those concepts, that metaphors can be true or false.
The first time I heard of Lakoff had been (I later recollected) in a book where Steven Pinker made fun of his very unempirical analyses. The ‘language is thought’ hypothesis has been somewhat carelessly thrown out by most linguists. (But if you are interested in some recent relevant research on this, I refer you to a favourite cognitive linguist.)
In Embassytown by China Mieville, the book that gave me the idea for the project, there is a race of aliens called Ariekei. The one difference between humans and the Ariekei is that the alien language has no metaphors. The Ariekei can only talk about things that are physically and perceptually concrete. Unlike humans, you see, the Ariekei cannot lie. Embassytown has many holes, but one thing it did impress upon me was the value of our ability to draw creative links between what is and could be. Metaphors We Live By shows the extent of this, and it is so inspired. It is a beautiful read for any speaker or learner of English. It will give you a whole new perspective on the language and a keen awareness of every word choice you make the next time you speak.

“Indian in blood, English in tastes” – bilingualism and language education

(this is not a direct reference, but representative of the sad books I am buried in lately)
This past month I have been working on my Masters’ dissertation in psycholinguistics. The project is not what this post is about, but something I stumbled upon during my research. My subjects were 13-14 year old students from my hometown. 
In a questionnaire about their language profile, I cheekily inserted a question that had little to do with my study – how important it is to be proficient in your mother tongue (here, Marathi) versus English. An overwhelming percentage of the tiny minds asserted that the importance of English proficiency far exceeds that of Marathi.
Bilinguality has always been of interest to me, as someone oddly comfortable in her second language. And yet, it disappoints me to see children parroting an uninformed English-bias, greatly influenced no doubt by their own language teachers, who really should know better. I am not here to argue against the presence of English in our schooling, but against the pervasive ignorance of language policy and linguistic theory in mainstream primary education. This post is about how we got here, and why we must leave.
How We Got Here: Language Policy and Trilingual Education
Since Akbar’s times, Persian was the official language of India. It was during the British rule, obviously, that English took over. In the English Education Act of 1835, T.B. Macaulay emphasized the need for a class of people who were “Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” (The last bit is particularly tickling.) This is really how English entered Indian primary education, although it would be wrong to say none of our reformers supported Anglicizing our education. 
Post-independence, one of the biggest debates was (still is) the matter of selecting a National Language. Gandhi was in great support of Hindustani, a sort of combo of Hindi and Urdu. South India rejected Hindi as the national language, not surprising considering how little resemblance their Dravidian languages bear to this language of the North. In 1949, a compromise was struck, and both English and Hindi became the ‘official languages of the Union’ (Part 17th of the Constitution) with no mention of a national language as such. The intention was to eventually push English out entirely, but hey, we never got there.
Much violence and protests resulted in the trilingual education policy or three-language-formula – schools must teach Hindi, English and the regional mother tongue. (Even this was contested in parts of South India, but let’s not go there.) The point is this, in a country divided into separate states based on linguistic choices, no region seemed ready to allow official status to the language of another speaker over his own. English belonged to no one and hence, irony, to everyone. It stayed as the lingua franca.
In our post-colonial society, English was the language of the elite – an influential class. Today, our mass adoption of English gives our country one of its biggest economic advantages. Such valorisation is difficult to erase, but why should we? If anyone can pull off multilingualism, it’s India. 
Why We Must Leave: The Bilingual Brain versus Popular Opinion
So, political reasons out of the individual control is why English is here to stay. And it is not a bad thing, I am happy that today, sitting all the way here in India, I can talk to the globe with a command on English that only my very early exposure in school could have given me.

But, lately, I have seen far too many parents converse in English with their children. Preachy teachers with fake British accents (or not) encourage it. Infuriating. You see, in India, the aforementioned trilingual education policy makes it impossible not to raise kids as multilinguals. In such a situation, trying to block out the mother tongue to replace it with English is, at best, misguided.

The bilingual brain functions differently from the monolingual brain. It contains in itself more than the sum of two languages, which is why we can speak in mixtures of English and our own language. Linguist Vivian Cook calls this multicompetence. In fact, with every new language you learn, the structure or “shape” of the brain changes. How beautiful is that!
According to Jim Cummins, a Canadian expert in second language education, the two languages in a bilingual brain interact and overlap, such that certain basic cognitive skills and concepts can transfer from one language to the other. Lots of exposure to the second language, plus overt instruction in the first language is enough to develop proficiency in the second language. Teaching in this manner increases the child’s comfort, and hence competence. Any child better learns new things while cocooned in old familiar things.
In India, we enter school at the age of 4, our brains fully equipped with the mother tongue. Not to use this as a resource in learning English is silly, but to actively encourage wiping it out is dangerous.

Banning the use of the first language, Cook says, will not stop learners from using it. The brain can’t separate two languages just because some random teacher wants it to. What banning the mother tongue will do is make tiny gullible minds guilty of using it to help think, it will demoralize those who realize they need their mother tongue to better understand and learn. 

Banning the first language in a second language classroom takes away an effective learning strategy. It becomes harder to learn English without using the mother tongue. And we don’t want that, do we! Banishing the mother tongue from a child’s home is attempting to exchange a potentially restructured cool bilingual brain for a simple monolingual one. Neither scenario is very positive. 
And, really! I wish more people understood this. More than anything, I wish we had more language teachers with a fair grasp of linguistic theory and an interest in it. It is easy to underestimate something like language, something everyone can “do,” but its widespread application is the very reason it is so essential to get it right.
In that diverse set of some 60 students I spoke to during my data-collection spree, one little girl stood out. All long braids and twinkly eyes. Both the languages are very important, she told me emphatically, each in its own way. I told her to hold on to that thought. 

Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich

My spoken Hindi is shaky at best. But I can read Hindi fairly fluently, one reason being that it shares its script, called Devanagari, with my mother tongue. A little detail I love about the cover of Dreaming in Hindi is how the title of the book is fashioned to look like Devanagari, squiggly letters with a line running across the top.
One of the harder aspects of learning Hindi for an English-native must be this script, which unlike English, is perfectly phonetic and has no letters for vowels. We add additional markers on each consonant letter for any following vowel sounds and consonant clusters. So the name Priya consists only of two letters (प्रि and या) in Hindi – a fact that must take a while to wrap your head around. We in turn find it difficult to make sense of all the vocalic variations in English and spend long hours scratching our heads over why the word lose sounds no different from loose… I digress.
Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language by Katherine Russell Rich is a book for language lovers by a language learner. Which makes it basically, very subjectively, the best kind of book. Having recovered from a long cancer treatment, American journalist Kathy Rich finds herself wanting to escape. And in what I have been told is a rather Eat, Pray, Love-esque way, sets out to remote India on a freelance writing assignment. A Hindi learning course takes her to Udaipur, a small city in the desert of Rajasthan. Kathy describes it as exactly the sort of exotic mess that the word India would bring to mind – dust and scorching heat, women in billowing sarees, lavish palaces, narrow streets, and minds steeped in old tradition.
Dreaming in Hindi follows Kathy’s experience of learning by-immersion a strange foreign tongue, the struggle to make meaning when thrust into a new reality, the myriad misunderstandings it leads to, the peculiarities of the Hindi classroom, the cultural demands from a white woman in semi-rural India. Kathy’s accounts also describe the political situation in the country, beginning with the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, which happens shortly after her arrival in India. Nearly a year later, even as she exchanges emails with her American friends about the tragedy, the India around her is cocooned in its own suffering, with many instances of communal violence leading up to the 2002 riots in Gujarat… it is a book that teaches vital lessons in empathy. 
But this is not a travelogue, Kathy never quite embraces the new. She frequently turns into a carping critic of everything Indian; not once acknowledging it as a natural result of culture shock. Many, many characters populate Kathy’s accounts, much like they do the country. Kathy resorts to calling people by descriptors – the Whisperer, Dad 1, Dad 2. She mostly keeps to herself, and despite having lived in a home-stay for fairly long, leaves with hardly any insight into the middle-class Indian mind. Towards the end of the book, even as she waxes eloquent about how she misses Hindi back home, it is difficult to understand what, if anything, she actually liked about it. She is funny, I’ll give her that. But her constant acerbic remarks about her peers are petty and take a while to get used to. 
The best moments are when Kathy becomes obsessed with the Bollywood movie Lekin, the time she spends volunteering at a school for the deaf and hearing impaired, learning sign languages, her doctor’s visits, and her interactions with the Hindi poet Nand Chaturvedi. Such times, when she castes aside her reckless judgement or learns better, are worth it. 
Miracles are limited by place. “If you smile, you heal faster,” Dr Aggarwal told the uterine cancer patient, but away from her room, in the dim scruffy hall, he said simply, “If you get cancer here, you die.” And her? Too advanced, he said matter-of-factly. He brightened. “To you make a patient smile, you make them healthy,” he chimed. So cruel, I thought, breathless with anger, then I saw. That’s all he had. All he had were words. 
She intersperses her anecdotes with conversations and consultations she later had with various linguists, academics, pedagogues about language acquisition. It is cool how many sociolinguists cite this book as a good perspective on language learning (most recently I saw it in a book by applied-linguist Vivian Cook.) Kathy also details the most basic theories of language science and its history, throws us interesting tidbits she learns along the way – like how sign languages have dialects, or how you can be dyslexic in one language and not another, and so on… things which, as a Linguistics student, I know and have studied, but are pretty cool either way. 

And these little dollops of information are what makes Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich just the nicest read for anyone interested not only in contemporary India, but its language and most of all, anyone curious to know what linguistics is all about. (More specifically recommended for people who already know a bit about Indian languages.)

Foreign language studies are a rigged operation, I learned. An estimated 95 percent of students “fossilize,” the linguistic term for hardening at a certain level. Ninety-five! So accent’s a given, perfection’s impossible, and odds are you’re on your way to becoming a linguistic fossil: good work. At some point, then, the question has to become, Why would you even try?


In Hindi, you drink a cigarette, night spreads, you eat a beating. You eat the sun. “Dhoop khana?” I asked Gabriella Ilieva, a moonlighting New York University Hindi professor, first time we hit the phrase. “Sunbathe,” she said smiling. “To bask in the sun.” My mind, alert for ricocheting syntax, was momentarily diverted by the poetry of idiom, the found lyricism that’s the short-form answer to the question of why you’d try.