Languages

I think my love of language and languages can be traced back to listening to my grandmother speak Sicilian when I was a little kid. I don’t claim to be entranced by its beauty or anything like that, but even that young I appreciated the idea that you could express what you were thinking by shaping your mouth in a different way. I could mimic her accent with zero effort. I loved listening to her sing me Sicilian songs and trying to replicate what she was saying. But my parents were particular about her speaking English around us kids (because my mom doesn’t speak Sicilian), so I never had the opportunity to learn the language as a kid.

I didn’t have any other experience with other languages until high school. I planned on taking French like my dad and brother did just because that’s what you did in an honors curriculum. Because of a scheduling conflict I ended up taking Spanish. It was then that my facility with languages really blossomed. I learned the language well enough that by the time I started working my sophomore year I could converse with native-speaking coworkers. Not being afraid to use it obviously increased my proficiency exponentially.

Learning Spanish grew an interest in other languages. For some reason I really wanted to learn Russian and my mom gifted me a book, but I never really gained traction that early. Then I was looking for an elective during my sophomore year of college, and my father recommended Italian, citing my love of languages and obviously my heritage. I thought it was a great idea and took it for a year. I take great pride that after my first quarter my teacher thought I already spoke at least some of the language even though I didn’t know a word before her class.

My junior year I decided to take either a second year of Italian or a different language. I’d already learned most basic Italian grammar and I could pick up vocabulary talking with my grandmother (who spoke standard Italian as well as Sicilian), and college was the best chance to explore something entirely new. So I decided on a new language. That language ended up being Japanese. I’d always been fascinated with things East Asian, and I had a friend who’d taken it the previous year so it won out over Chinese. Learning Japanese was one of the most mind-expanding academic experiences in college for me.

The other was taking historical linguistics at the end of my junior year. It was a random fifth class that I had no reason to take, but a friend was taking it and I thought what the hell. I fell in love with it. I had no idea such a subject even existed, but when I started studying it I knew this was it. This easily trumped clinical psychology as what I wanted to study for my academic career. It just felt right. After learning that a background in linguistics wasn’t required for most graduate linguistics programs, my decision was made. Rather than applying for grad schools in psychology, I would go on in linguistics. Further linguistics courses solidified my interest in historical rather than more deeply theoretical linguistics.

Obviously by now languages had really taken over my life. I kept on with Japanese my senior year and also took first-year Chinese at the same time. Not only is Chinese a cool language in its own right, but I thought I could use the additional practice with Chinese writing.

During this time I also developed an interest in a stranger language: Eskimo. Midway through Japanese, I wanted to learn something REALLY bizarre. My brother had a Siberian Husky at the time, which led to, “Why not Eskimo?” It turned out that Central Yup’ik and Central Siberian Yup’ik are both actively spoken in Alaska and that learning materials were available from the Alaska Native Language Center for both languages. So began my journey north.

In fact, the deeper I got into historical linguistics, the more enamored I became with trying to learn the deeper relationships of the Eskimo-Aleut language family. That led me to graduate study at the University of Chicago, where one of the few linguists outside Alaska working on Eskimo worked. During my couple of years there I learned two more languages—Russian (finally) and French, since most work on Eskimo-Aleut is written in those languages and English. I also became more and more interested in the neighboring Chukotko-Kamchatkan family of languages, especially Chukchi. It was more virgin territory for a hungry young historical linguist. In fact, the director of the Alaska Native Language Center wanted to send me to Kamchatka to document the then-dying (now extinct) Kerek dialect of Chukchi.

As you probably know by now, it was around this time that I fell out of academia and into book publishing. But even though languages and linguistics may not play as central a role in my life as they used to, I’ve never lost the love and appreciation of them and the study of them. I’ve spent time trying to reinforce my Japanese, Chinese, and Russian, with varying degrees of success. I’m sure I’ll continue their study, as well as that of new languages (Finnish has been poking me for a while), for a long time to come.


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