I hope you are all enjoying 2013 so far. I certainly am. As Canadians draws closer, I begin to feel that all-too-familiar queasy feeling, consisting of nerves, excitement, and a sense of readiness and satisfaction that’s getting me revved up to go. But alas, we must be patient, and calmly train through the two weeks that separate us from one of the most exciting weeks of the year.
Now, I thought I’d talk about school today because it starts again tomorrow and it sits high up on my FAQs list. The holidays bring time with extended family, and while this is lovely (an understatement), it also means you have a lot of people feel the need to inquire about every aspect of your life in order to feel engaged and well informed (we are nearly all guilty of this). So, while everyone’s intentions are certainly good, and I appreciate that family-friends-reporters-fans care enough about me to wonder how my life is going, at a certain point I do tire a little of telling people that school is going well and yes, I’m able to balance my training and my studies, and yes, there are REAL jobs you can get with a linguistics degree, and no, I’m not learning Mandarin even though it’s the “language of the future”, and no, my degree does not consist of learning 500 languages and becoming fluent in all of them (this last one might be an exaggeration). I will elaborate on these topics further below in a semi-organized fashion; you should bear in mind, oh reader, that this may be quite a long post, as I have much to say.
I’m a student at U of T (University of Toronto), currently in my third year of studies. The University campus is absolutely beautiful, sitting in the centre of downtown Toronto (which brings with it both great opportunities that I do not have in the little piece of suburbia where I live, and many distractions). As an Arts & Science student, within the university, I’m also a member of one of the 7 colleges, mine being Trinity College; the college is each student’s social hub, a place to sort out monetary, academic, and administrative issues, and determines where you live if you were to stay in residence. It’s a great system, in my opinion, as it allows easier access to many resources given the university’s very large student body, and it has allowed me to meet so many great people (and on a very superficial level, I believe my college has the most beautiful building, though my opinion my be slightly biased). Each student gets to choose which college they wish to be a member of, and this decision is entirely independent of what you are studying.
So here I am, studying linguistics. This year, I’ve dropped down to a 70% courseload. In light of not being able to travel next year, I thought it might be a good idea to get ahead and take a full courseload. And while I survived (barely!), I thought it would be a better idea to not give myself a near-suicidal amount of work this year. My classes are in the afternoon, so we train in the morning, I drive downtown, to go to class, and then in the evening I have off-ice or dance classes. There are some daily variations to the aforementioned schedule but that is the general course of my day. It’s a full day, it requires a lot of preparation, a (very) large lunchbox, and constant vigilance, not to mention a Sunday (my day off training) locked in my house doing schoolwork.
So, I should point out here that contrary to popular belief, linguistics does not consist of learning a lot of languages. I actually was first interested linguistics in contemplating my reality as a native bilingual. Does the language you speak affect the way you think? Did I, myself, think differently in French than I did in English? These were all questions that clouded my mind as I stepped into my first linguistics lecture over two years ago. And boy was I disappointed! Here I was, at the professor’s mercy, submerged in a world of minute theoretical analysis, dissecting every aspect of language from the physiology of the mouth (relevant for pronunciation) to abstract logical notation of words and their meanings in the mind.
Nonetheless, my grief was short-lived, as I quickly found a love for the material and I soon willingly submerged myself in the fantastical world of theoretical linguistics. In essence, it is the scientific study of language, including phonetics (the study of how humans make sounds and the physical properties of these sound waves), phonology (the study of possible combinations of sounds, and why some combinations don’t work), morphology (the study of word formation and how these words might be stored in the mind), syntax (the study of sentence structure and how the mind builds sentences) and semantics (how the mind encodes meaning and figures out how a bunch of sounds, i.e. words, can be meaningful and allow us to pass on ideas). The definitions I have presented here are very simplistic and I’ve taken a lot of things for granted that would truly get me massacred if they appeared in a paper, but I want to share these basic ideas with you. If you’d like to know more, I’ll refer you to Wikipedia, which, as much as it isn’t a scholarly source, does describe the basics in a quite-accessible manner. Linguistics also has borders with psychology, neurology, sociology and anthropology, but these are topics I’ve come to mostly ignore as I delve deeper into my world of theory.
Most of the work I’m doing is on syntax, so I’d just like to give you all a brief example of some of the work I might do. You are all native speakers of a language, one that you’ve been speaking since infanthood, and as a native speaker you have a vast knowledge of your language, usually without even knowing it. Of course, you have to teach an infant that a dog is called a ‘dog,’ and as kids we are taught many things about our language, but there are other things that we all know without ever having been taught it. A lot of my work consists of figuring out what these things are. Take the two sentences below for example:
(1) Beatrice wanted to see the picture of herself.
(2) Beatrice’s mother wanted to see the picture of herself.
Here, I am concerned with the word ‘herself.’ In (1), ‘herself’ refers to Beatrice, but in (2), ‘herself’ must refer to Beatrice’s mother; importantly, it CANNOT refer to Beatrice. Why not? It’s not self-evident. However, every single speaker of English knows this, though I can assure you that none of your relatives or teachers pointed a rule out to you that would explain why, and that you’ve never ever read these sentences before. Isn’t that fascinating?!
So clearly, there must be some rule in all of our heads that tells us how to figure out what ‘herself’ can refer to in a sentence. My job is to figure out what that rule is.
You might think that ‘herself’ has to refer to the closest “person” in the sentence… In (2), the word ‘mother’ is closer to ‘herself’ than ‘Beatrice’ is, so that’s whom it refers to. In (1), ‘herself’ can refer to Beatrice since there is no other person in the sentence that it can refer to. This is a great initial hypothesis. Nonetheless, it fails when we test it with more data:
(3) The tall girl who hit the little girl wanted to see the picture of herself.
In (3), ‘herself’ refers to ‘the tall girl’, even though ‘the little girl’ is technically closer. So clearly this is not the right rule.
I will not give you the answer here, since it is much more complicated than I have made it out to be, but I would just like everyone to be more aware of what an amazing system language is and how incredibly easily we know all its rules without ever having been taught a lot of them.
So that is what I do. Now, an analysis of English is great, but an analysis can be so much more interesting; there are so many great languages in the world that have fascinating phenomena to scrutinize. And so I do. A linguist learns languages not because they are useful or because they can speak to a lot of people, but because there is something specific about that language that they want to study… I have no interest in languages with regards to their use in the business world. My criteria are different. For those who are interested, the languages I’d like to work with are French, Spanish, Japanese, Turkish, Basque, Malagasy, and Mayan languages like Jacaltec, among others.
I believe now that I’ve covered all the issues I mentioned above. I hope I did not bore you all to death. But I did want to introduce you to my world (the non-skating part) and this is an integral part of it.
As a follow-up to this post, my next few posts will include a segment in a non-English language, 1. so that I can share my thoughts with more people, and 2. because I really need the practice writing in them all.
That’s all I have for now. I hope you all had a great New Years and are looking forward to Canadians, which is in just a short week! As the blade turns,