Why do I do what I do?

Choosing a career in academia, and specifically a career of linguistic research, doesn’t have an immediately obvious benefit for the world in the way that many other jobs do. We’re not discovering medical cures, feeding starving children, or fixing your car. Despite this, I think real-world value exists in linguistics research. In some ways, how active someone wants to be in exploring this value varies from researcher to researcher. For example, work like this book by friends and fellow sociolinguists Anne Charity and Christine Mallinson makes academic research immediately practical, bringing insights directly to classroom teachers. Among linguists, sociolinguists in particular take our language data directly from the mouths of everyday people, and many of us have long recognized the need to give back to those communities that we work with (something eloquently pointed out by one of my PhD advisors, John Rickford, in a paper in in 1997).

For a lot of us, though, exactly how we give back varies considerably; many of us are wracked with guilt for not being able to give back ‘enough’. We sit with our WAV recorders and microphones in the livingrooms of kind strangers who tell us the highs and lows of their life story, and we listen. Then we walk away, out of their home, out of that community, into our office (and in my case, across a continent and an ocean), and in many cases we may not see those strangers again. We didn’t fix their problems, we didn’t feed their children (although the lucky among us have research grant funds to at least pay them for their time), and we certainly didn’t fix their car. We take those stories and we turn them into research papers about the ‘construction of local ideologies’ or the ‘progression of sound change’ or the ‘negotiation of social meaning’. Who cares? Do they care? How can we justify asking a tax-based scientific funding agency to pay for such an endeavor? How can we convince undergraduate students that spending your life doing something like this is something worthwhile?

I have two thoughts on this, one at the level of the person, and one at the level of society.

At the level of the individual, sociolinguists and other social science researchers who rely on interview data are lucky. We’re lucky because a lot of people discover, through the course of an interview, that they love to be interviewed. To the extent that psychotherapy is effective, a certain kind of sociolinguistic interview can provide nearly the same effect. To wit: the vast majority of the 94 people I interviewed in San Francisco thanked me for the opportunity, and for my time. Thanked me for my time. Many of them literally said how much they enjoyed it (by the way, to everyone doing fieldwork right now, it is at this point that you get your best friend-of-a-friend referrals)! A few of them asked for copies of the interview when it was over. One woman had gotten choked up with tears at some point, and at the end said that the interview had been a ‘wonderful’ experience. Mind you, these are not, strictly speaking, ‘oral history’ interviews. I was conducting loosely-structured (i.e., topics raised by the interviewee are followed through) sociolinguistic interviews (the kind designed to get people to just talk a lot, thereby providing a lot of speech to analyze). In other words, as far as I can tell, I was just being a linguist.  But one thing linguistics research does is that it gives a place for people to tell their story… something that is, itself, important for society.

All of that is warm and fuzzy (and, it’s worth noting, not the case for every interview, by any means). But what I think is more interesting, and a harder sell, is the value of linguistics research in general, not just the value for those researchers who are lucky enough to have fieldwork-based data collection methods.

Here’s what I think: linguistics research makes life more full. Not only for the linguist, but for a member of our global society.

(I know, I know, you were with me up to here and now you’re like ‘she’s totally deluding herself’. Maybe so; but that’s why this is a blog, and not a real publication, haha. But hear me out.)

What does linguistics teach us? Simply put: that languages have structure and complexity; that each language is just as structured and complex as the next; that every language makes meaningful contrasts (between sounds or letters or parts of speech or other bits of language); that what those contrasts are is different from language to language. What does this knowledge do for us? For one, it makes us think more abstractly. In a nutshell, thinking more abstractly about our social world makes it easier to see the commonalities across communities, and makes it harder to see our enemies as less than human. Take a concrete example. Person A is a monolingual English speaker sitting on a bus next to Persons B and C who are talking in a non-English language. Person A might very well be annoyed (‘Why can’t they just speak English?!’), or, as the well-known tale goes, she might think that B and C are gossiping about her, intentionally avoiding English to speak in a ‘secret code’. Now, I’m not saying that Person A’s taking a linguistics class in college is going to completely mitigate these reactions. But if we consider that many, many linguists producing lots and lots of research might just change, even slightly, the way people talk about language. And being a member of a society that starts to change in that way might change Person A’s reaction to B and C, even if just a little bit. Current linguistic theories show us how the repetition of these little moments of change over time can become something much larger and more enduring. In other words, the search for answers to the questions in linguistic research may — subtly but crucially — change the way we think about our fellow human beings. I believe that linguistics research is part of a vital academic project that transforms the way we experience our world, for the better. And that is enough motivation, for me.

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3 Responses to Why do I do what I do?

  1. iamkimiam says:

    Great piece!

    For me personally, the linguistics tools and skills I have acquired over the years helped make sense of my childhood, full of miscommunications and language barriers (due to pragmatic disorders of caregivers in my life). Once I had worked through those issues, I started to see how I could apply linguistic tools at macro levels…understanding how politicians influence entire communities, how countries talk to each other, how the media perpetuates stereotypes, how minority groups are made less than human, and even how a common language can divide people. Many of life’s problems can be untangled by a little linguistic insight. It’s amazing stuff.

    Best field ever.

  2. Alan A. Lew says:

    I think you forgot one thing, being an academic, and studying and sharing an area that you find interesting, is also a lot of fun! 🙂

  3. Also, those of us who’ve “sold out” and gone computational (my PhD is definitely going to produce a tool that Does Stuff) would have a much harder time of it without scientifically-minded linguists doing the original research in the field. So please keep going 😉

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