Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why I became a linguist

Someone asked on the blog recently if I could comment on why and how I became a linguist. Since one rarely gets an invitation to talk about oneself, I thought I wouldn’t miss this opportunity! You’re a captive audience only if you choose to be! So, here goes the ‘why’ answer:

I became a linguist because a nearly life-long exposure to more than one language gave me an interest in All Things Linguistic. My maternal grandparents spoke Pennsylvania Dutch as their mother tongue, and I remember in early childhood being taught phrases like kansht du deitch shvetsa ‘can you speak Dutch’ and nay, ich kann net ‘no, I cannot’. When I was seven years old, my parents moved us to northwestern Tanzania where my father taught at a college. At first I was shy about going outside in big, scary Africa, but with a little encouragement I went. I remember stepping out on our back porch to play with a group of boys speaking Swahili. And then, I remember being able to speak Swahili. Among the intertribal student population at that college, I also learned basic greetings in the Jita and Dholuo languages.

Fast forward eight years, and our family was back in Tanzania, this time among a predominantly Kiroba community. Now a teenager, it took about three months for my Swahili to ‘come back’. Most of my friends spoke Kiroba as their first language, so by the end of two years I could understand quite a bit of simple conversation in that language. During those two years, my interest in languages fairly exploded. While studying French as part of my home-school curriculum, I also dove into German and Greek for fun. At daily ‘chai time’ mid-morning, I used to haul a massive Hebrew Bible to the table and gaze hungrily over the commentary written in Latin, French, and German. By the end of those years in Tanzania, which was nearly the end of my high-school education, I was starting to think I wanted a career that involved languages and cultures.

Oddly enough, my first two years of college involved no special training in languages, apart from the normal requirements of English writing and literature. Because I wasn’t sure what major to pursue in college, and because I was itching to travel again, I took a year off to participate in a Christian young-adult program that included spiritual training and a trip to a foreign country. Our team of four young folks was assigned to Kazakhstan. Our mission: share the love of Jesus Christ in the context of friendships, language learning (Kazakh and Russian), and language teaching (English). In Aktau, a city located on the shores of the Caspian Sea in western Kazakhstan and whose name means ‘white mountain’ (funny, since there were no mountains, let alone white mountains, anywhere to be seen), I lived with a Muslim Kazakh family. For five months I did my best to learn Kazakh mostly and a bit of Russian on the side. We had to leave the country earlier than planned, so to complete our time, we stayed in northern France for a month. These experiences with kind and fascinating people left me burning with a desire to learn more Russian and French. As a result, I went back to the university, majored in French, and minored in Russian (and no, there’s not a lot of Russian or French spoken in northeast Uganda...).

The summer before I went to Kazakhstan, I attended a six-week course in linguistics hosted by SIL at the University of North Dakota. Those four years in Africa had prepared me well for those courses in that I had examples of what they were teaching in my head from real-life experience. The time there was actually quite exhilarating for me, and I believe I walked away from there reasonably sure that I wanted a career with SIL.

That was in the summer of 2000 and is in some ways only half the story, but it does point out why I became a linguist. If you read between the lines, you may discern a few themes. One, I became a linguist because people I loved spoke languages I couldn’t understand. To love them better, I wanted to know those languages. Two, I became a linguist because each of the roughly 7000 languages in the world is a unique way to speak of and understand the world we live in. When I hear a foreign language spoken, its mystery and beauty beckon me to it so that I too can see the world in its light and speak with those who share that light. Three, I became a linguist because I just love the different sounds and systems of other languages; each language has a unique nature that somehow fits the people who speak it and the environment it’s spoken in. Finally, I became a linguist because I wanted a vocation that combined what I enjoy (language) with what God is doing somewhere in the world (spirit development, which is occasionally helped along by language development).

Thanks for asking!


The Reeds said...

Interesting! I love the new background!!
Happy belated thanksgiving from us! :)

Dorien said...

Great post! So you grew up in the area we live now? Interesting!

Josh Stake said...

that's really neat. you sure have had a lot of great experience learning language. since you mentioned workshops, i'm curious to know if things like that really help or if the most important thing is just immersion/exposure and lots of practice. if you could give us 3 tips on learning a new language, what would they be?...i'm all ears