A personal linguistic history, chapter 3: Not with a bang but a whimper

Grad school. Working toward a PhD in linguistics. This is where my language story really explodes and gets interesting, right? Sadly, just the opposite. I was in grad school for only two years full-time before a lot of things changed for me personally, professionally, and intellectually. I won’t go into details, but things kinda stalled. But I did advance a bit on my language study.

First off, one of my degree requirements was proficiency in two research languages other than English. I made short work of those, learning Russian (finally) and French — the only other languages with a significant amount of research on Eskimo-Aleut languages. By the end of my second year I’d passed my French exam. The only reason I hadn’t also taken my Russian exam was a lack of confidence, not ability.

To set the stage for the rest of the story, I have a confession to make. I’m a bit of an intellectual vagabond. A major reason I didn’t finish my PhD is that I don’t have the focus necessary to hone in on a single topic. I learn the basics and then something fresh and shiny comes along and grabs my attention.

Don’t get me wrong. I learned a LOT about Eskimo-Aleut. But my eye wandered. I started reading more about adjacent language families of Alaska and the Russian Far East. That led me to read more about the historical linguistics of the indigenous languages of North America more broadly. I didn’t yet know everything there was to know about Eskimo-Aleut, which meant I was learning more than I needed to know about Athabaskan. Not a great formula for finishing a PhD. So while I craved more knowledge about indigenous North American languages more broadly, I needed to put together a narrower reading list that could lead to a degree.

During this time I also became enamored with Johanna Nicholls’s theory of population typology. Without getting technical, that theory led me to a fascination with the idea of the northern Pacific coast of Asia as a linguistic “residual zone” — i.e., an area of great linguistic genetic diversity. Not unrelated, I’d been growing more interested in Chukotko-Kamchatkan, a family of indigenous languages spoken on the Chukotka and Kamchatka peninsulas of the Russian Far East, because of its geographic proximity to the range of Eskimo-Aleut. (Note that one of the languages of this family is Chukchi, those dog breeders that started me on this path). I hadn’t previously been able to learn much about these languages since almost all of the scholarship on them is in Russian, but that was no longer a barrier. My advisers agreed with my choice for an official “minor field” — the historical linguistics of Eskimo-Aleut and Chukotko-Kamchatkan.

This is the point in the story where a series of life events occurred that pulled me out of academia and into my book-publishing career. My time and attention turned to other pursuits, and even when my mind was more intellectually engaged, I wasn’t really thinking about languages or linguistics. I think part of that was backlash. Grad school was a pretty stressful time in my life, and I was eager to put it behind me.

I went a really long time like that. But a couple of things happened recently that sucked me back in. One is a silly little app you’ve likely heard of — Duolingo. My family and I will be taking a trip to Costa Rica this summer, and my wife was looking for ways to improve her Spanish. She stumbled on Duolingo in her research. It took me a bit before I succumbed to its temptation, but once I did I jumped in head-first. It’s certainly not a great method for learning a language deeply. But damn is it addictive. I decided to pick a new language I knew nothing about. Duolingo doesn’t offer a huge variety of weird languages, so I selected Turkish. Hell, Turkic languages are spoken in Siberia, right? Before I knew it, not only had I completed the Turkish course, but I plowed through their courses in other languages I’d already studied, freshening up my Spanish, French, Italian, and Russian. During this, I was reminded that not only am I good at learning languages, but it’s FUN. So much freakin’ fun. In the past, learning a language involved dedicated study and large blocks of time. But I could complete a Duolingo lesson in five or ten minutes! It’s been so easy to fit in to everything else going on in my life.

The other thing that happened to me was Mongolia. My interest in the country began in an unlikely place — music. Listening to Mongolian music led me to learn more about the country, and things snowballed. I fell in love with the place. I can’t get enough knowledge about things Mongolian into my skull. Juxtapose that with my Duolingo kick, and of course I’ve dived into learning Mongolian. It’s much slower going than the app-based courses (I’ve since slowed down on Duolingo and am using Memrise to brush up on my Japanese). But it’s transporting me back to my early days of learning Japanese. It’s not just about the language. It’s the mind-expansion that accompanies learning it. Maybe East Asia just holds a place in my spirit that the Arctic couldn’t replace. But I feel at home learning Mongolian.

I’ve been pretty surprised at the feeling that regaining my interest in languages has created. Not to wax overly melodramatic, but I feel like I’ve regained a part of myself that had been lost for a while. Learning languages — not just linguistics but languages — feels right. Time will tell if I stay the path, of course. But I love being back on the journey again.



~ by chewie93 on March 8, 2017.

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