Linguistics Made Me A Better Person: A Fond Farewell to My Major

The first post I ever wrote for this blog (named Tuesdays with Sisi back in the day) was about Linguistics.

Back then–has this really happened so quickly?–I still had most people looking at me blankly when I told them what I studied. I had to explain it over and over again, and eventually I got tired of explaining it and wrote a blog post that explained it for me. I described the field and its various subfields, debunked some myths, pointed out various career options, and more.

Over the course of this blog, I’ve written a few other articles concerning linguistics in one way or another. Usually they draw attention to some fascinating tidbit of the discipline and how wacky/interesting/downright cool it is. And over the course of two years, linguistics has grown in the public eye. Between ‘pop’ linguists like Gretchen McCulloch explaining how we write sarcasm on the internet, and movies like Arrival who feature linguists as their protagonists, the science of language has suddenly slipped into the mainstream.

It seems that more and more people are in agreement that linguistics is a pretty worthwhile thing to think about. So I’m going to take the opportunity to add something fresh to the conversation: I think linguistics is a pretty worthwhile thing to feel.

What does that mean? Simple enough: I’ve spoken plenty about the intellectual merits of studying linguistics, but I don’t think, in two years, I’ve ever tried to explain the emotional merits of studying the discipline. The social benefits. I’m not just a smarter person–I’m a better one. And seeing as I have one final post to write, and I’ve already written my thank you to Glendon in general, I think I’d like to finish how I started. Linguistic love letters.

Linguistics Made Me Open-Minded

“Any living language will change over time.” That’s one of the first things a linguistics student learns. Gone are the old high school conception of a language as a solid, static thing–instead, we learn to conceive of language as a shapeshifter, constantly morphing and evolving and transforming to suit the needs of its users. Along with this, we are initiated into one of the biggest linguistic battles there is: prescriptivism VS descriptivism. How a language ‘should’ be versus how it simply is. As lingusitics students, we are trained to approach language from an observational standpoint, rather than a judgemental one.

This one critical shift in mindset changed the way I experience language in everyday life: more specifically, it’s made me less disdainful, less condescending, when I hear words or phrases or sentence structure that are new or unfamiliar or untraditional. In fact I straight-up adore instances of language variation, whether it’s the use of ‘y’all’ as the second person plural, or the emphatic multiple negatives in African American English (“ain’t nobody never told me nothing”). Things that used to feel like ‘improper use’ of a language are actually reflections of the true nature of language: a tool that is constantly self-improving and innovating. I’ve stopped judging people’s intelligence based on whether or not they use Standard English. I’ve become more open-minded to the many, many directions that language could go.

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Linguistics Made Me More Patient

As anyone who learned a second language later in life knows, language acquisition is tough stuff. We don’t spend enough time appreciating the technical elegance and difficulty of processing language–it really is a remarkable ability. A class in Learning ESL taught me in-depth about all of the stages of language learning, alongside the layers and layers of challenges that go along with those stages. Other classes, like Phonetics and Phonology, have made me appreciate how difficult it can be to learn to pronounce sounds that are not native to your first language/s; others still, like Semantics, have taught me that the word-to-meaning ratio is NOT one-to-one, and in fact there are as many infinitely-specific meanings for any one word as there are people who use that word. Again, nothing is fixed. Everything is variable.

All of this together has made me a far, far more patient person with folks who speak nonfluent or broken English or French. When I was younger, I’d lose interest or patience pretty fast for someone who couldn’t express themselves verbally as quickly as I could. Now I recognize the importance of letting people get there at their own pace, and the generosity inherent in waiting for the lines of communication to clear. If somebody misuses a word or is trying to get around a gap in their verbal acuity, I’m a lot more willing to wait, or even to help them find the words they need. I’m more flexible in terms of using simple language to express complex ideas. And I’m more appreciative of the astonishing amount of effort that someone speaking in a foreign language has put in to achieve the level of fluency they’ve got.

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Linguistics Made Me a Better Listener

Words are fascinating because they contain so much and so little, all at once. As David Foster Wallace once said, “How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.” Words are meaningless, and they also mean the world. You can tell a whole lot about a person by how they speak–classes in Sociolinguistics taught me that much. Everything from the pitch and tone of voice to the choice of one synonym among many to the emphasis on particular words or constituents–it tells as much of a story as whatever’s actually being said. If you know how to look for it, you can decode all sorts of information about whoever’s talking to you.

I used to assume I understood what someone was talking about without listening too hard. Most of the time I was lucky enough to get away with it, but sometimes it caused some pretty hefty miscommunications. But nowadays, I pay attention. I notice word choice. I notice pauses. I notice silence. I notice the difference between ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’, the difference between ‘have to’ and ‘get to’, the difference between past- and present-tense storytelling. I’ve (usually accidentally!) called people out on some pretty personal things by understanding the subtext in their words. The words are a doorway to the thoughts and the emotions that birthed them. Before linguistics showed me how to decode that information, I never much realized it was there.

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Linguistics Made Me More Compassionate

Because nothing will make you feel a deep, gripping, vicarious existential sadness like taking a course in Language Endangerment. Over the course of my studies, I had a few classes that covered this topic in varying degrees: Case Studies in Canada’s Aboriginal Languages, African Languages and Linguistics, Documentary Linguistics. If you’re Anglophone, then you’ve never had to experience the unique pain and loss that comes from knowing your language is in danger of going extinct. Something else that linguistics students internalize over the years: “Language is culture, and culture is language.” A language is more than just words. The way it’s organized reflects the philosophy of those who speak it, their worldview. Generations and generations of wisdom are packed into the intricacies of any one language–and when it dies, that wisdom dies with it. It’s a loss I can only barely begin to understand, even now.

Being made aware of a phenomenon like language death has made me a lot more sensitive to the ways that culture and wisdom are transmitted, and to the ways they are ignored or invalidated across space and time. And being made aware that the difference between languages can sometimes quite literally be the difference between life and death–well, that made me respect other people’s perspectives more. I used to walk around more or less convinced that people understood the world with basically the same set of parameters and guidelines that I used. But when you’re taught that some languages have no word for ‘thank you’, no word for ‘sorry’, no word for ‘death’, you have no choice but to accept that human beings understand life in vastly different ways, and with that acceptance comes compassion for the culture clash.

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Linguistics Made Me Self-Aware

There’s a thing called ‘register’ in Sociolinguistics. It boils down to something like “the type of language that is appropriate for the situation”. Someone who is sociolinguistically competent understands that there is a time and a place for different kinds of speech–as an example, you might swear in a casual setting, but not in a professional one. Your conscious choice to differentiate shows that you have at least two registers.

I used to be totally unaware of my register. I’d use the words that made the most sense to ME, and if they didn’t do the trick, well, it was a problem with everyone else. I was too busy trying to use exactly the right words to express myself that I struggled with using exactly the right words to communicate myself. I developed a reputation for using big, flashy words (and some people thought it was admirable, and others thought it was pretentious and condescending). I still make full use of my vocabulary now, sure–but I do so with the additional layer of competence that tells me when it’s appropriate and useful to employ those ten-dollar words. I’ll use ‘psithurism’ in my journal or perhaps in a poem, but if I’m talking to someone on the street, I’ll probably just say ‘the sound of the wind through the trees’. I used to worry that if I used smaller, simpler speech, I’d be perceived as unintelligent, but an understanding of register has freed me of that concern. Nowadays, I don’t worry about whether I sound smart–I just worry about whether I’m being understood. And that makes all the difference.

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When incoming students ask me about the importance or the relevance of linguistics as a discipline, I usually tell them that linguistics gives people command of the most powerful tool in the human arsenal: communication. Whether it’s written, spoken, or signed, we need language in order to transmit knowledge, teach skills, create art, create relationships, and more.

But if I had to tack on an addendum, it would be this: careful study of linguistics makes you a kinder, more generous person. It broadens your possible interpretations of the world. It makes you more respectful, more good-humoured, and ultimately more connected to the world. And if you’re aiming for a Liberal Arts education, that’s really the most you could ask for.

So thank you, linguistics, for making me a better human being.

Love and language,

~Sisi

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One thought on “Linguistics Made Me A Better Person: A Fond Farewell to My Major

  1. This is so well written! I completely agree with the argument that it makes you more tolerant and understanding of other peoples’ cultures and differences in perspectives. I too used to be very intolerant and impatient towards people who couldn’t communicate in English the just; but after having studied French and Spanish myself, I understand how difficult it is for those whose first language isn’t English, to process information in a second or third language.

    I’m aspiring to pursue a Masters in linguistics too this year and I hope to achieve at least half of what you did from your 2 year long journey 😀
    Thank you for sharing your experience 🙂

    It would be great if you could check out my blog. It’s just a small attempt to keep reading about language and linguistics. Thanks 🙂

    http://www.eudaimonicpolyglot.wordpress.com

    Like

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