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Major Possibilities

by Crystal Torres on June 9, 2017

My instructor is like a recruiter for some strange academic cult. I am not the first person to get a few weeks into one of her classes and seriously consider switching my major. She’s in love with her field and, for a moment, so was I. This past semester I was taking linguistic anthropology, which is, of course, taught by an anthropologist. I am, however, a linguistics major.

People used to suggest that I should be an English major. I read, I write, I seem to enjoy the language. English classes suck the joy out everything. I don’t want to diagram and I don’t want to analyze. I want to understand. I approach language like a poet, twisting my sentences passionately enough to wring emotions out of seemingly dry words. This is not what English majors do.

I know that I am a linguistics major. I don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up though. Ultimately, I want to live a fascinating life and write all about it, but I’ve yet to see that in the classifieds. I want to love and be loved, but too much of that is beyond my control to put on a goals list. These are great motivators, but they’re kinda useless as career goals. The thing about linguistics is it touches on everything I love.

Interpersonal relationships are absolutely impacted by linguistics. When I used to volunteer with grieving children we used language in deliberate ways. We don’t say that someone committed suicide, crimes are committed. Someone died by suicide. We don’t say that we lost someone. Lost people should be looked for, and hopefully found. We say that someone died. Linguistics are important to that work. Language, and paralanguage, are how humans communicate with each other. I want to do that.

Creative writing is a crap major for someone who needs to make a living. It’s still something that appeals to me, with all the sparkle of a child’s dream of a candy store. I can’t afford that major, but linguistics will help me as a writer.

One of my favorite things in my first career was implementing speech therapy with the developmentally disabled adults in my care. I learned, and taught, a number of ASL signs. I encouraged the use of key words with deliberate repetition. I even talked to the speech therapist about what it takes to become a speech therapist, which was college, which was not for me at that time. Still, I remain oddly passionate about speech pathology. I had received speech therapy as a kid, for a stammer and a lisp. I made up a speech therapy protocol for my son when I decided that he was too old to keep using Y sounds as a substitute for L sounds. It was fun and it worked. Linguistics helps towards that career path.

Linguists also get to work on movies. In rare instances they are key consultants on films like, Arrival. More commonly, they help with accents. I don’t know enough about that career to gush, but it’s still kinda cool. I loved being an extra, getting that fly on a wall view to the huge collaboration that goes into even a small piece of storytelling on screen. It’s fun that linguistics has a tie in to that world, too.

I like the idea of teaching English as a foreign language and getting to travel the world, experiencing how people live and communicate in their cultures, not just how tourist traps come in slightly different flavors, but really getting to participate in different communities. That has appealed to me the most.

Last night was the last night of my linguistic anthropology class. Some of us, who prefer writing, turned in term papers. Others gave final presentations. I enjoyed them all, but I was most struck by the presentation on Chinese written language (she did not specify which which Chinese language, so I will just refer to it as broadly as she did) that was given by a Chinese woman, roughly my age, who has been living in the United States for five years now. 

She talked about strong Sapir-Worf. She introduced us to her full name. Her family name is written as a representation of a great warrior, his weapon beside him, his horse underneath him. This is her proud lineage. This is who she is from.

Her next name is written with water, for a specific river in a specific valley, with a specific geography and a specific history filled with battles and heroes. That is her second name. This is where she is from.

Her personal name has a literal translation, to a thing of beauty, the same way a name like Rose does in English. More importantly though it has specific virtues associated with it. When her parents gave her that name it was a way of bestowing her with their wishes for all that she could be. This name is who she might be. 

Now, in America, she doesn’t paint her name in three squares, each telling a story. She spells it out in letters and it becomes just sound. She forgets the meaning of her names, who she is from, where she is from, who she was supposed to be.

Chinese poetry is painting. The scenery and the words are painted together on the same page, with the same brush, the same ink. Words and images are not separate the way she learned Chinese.

Now, years later, children in China are learning to think phonetically. There are standard spellings for Chinese words in western letters, there are corresponding phonetic characters. These exist on Chinese computer keyboards for quickly composing easily translated documents.

She did not learn to think phonetically, to separate the sound of the word from the story, the way that Chinese children do now, the way that western children have always. 

She struggles with English with it’s complicated, arbitrary sounds. For five years she has been trying very hard to learn English, not as an academic accomplishment, but for survival. She needs to know the language she is submersed in.

Her grades are good in all of her classes, but English. She works hard as student. She still feels lost in the language. She can translate one word literally for another, but she cannot make English words mean what Chinese words mean beyond the surface. She took linguistic anthropology to learn how to learn language. She still doesn’t know how to learn English, how to think in a western language, with a western framing. 

I have never wanted so badly to take even half of my ability to read and write and speak and understand English and just lift it out of my mind and pour it into someone else’s. I, who once dangled backwards off the top of a castle, with a little old man, not nearly strong enough to prevent my falling, holding onto my ankles, so I could kiss the Blarney stone and be imbued with the gift of gab, would have given up all of my eloquence and poetry, to give her what she needs for her autonomy and security. I wish I knew how to give her my language.

Fortunately, it doesn’t work that way. I don’t have to give up any portion of my language to share it with others. I don’t know exactly how it does work, how adults, long past the ages of prime language acquisition, can be taught to think and speak in a language that isn’t just a different set of sounds for the same objects, but a different culture, a different way of thinking, a different set of perceived possibilities.

I’m hoping that being a linguistics major means that I’ll find out though. Maybe I’ll teach English as a second language. I think what I want to be when I grow up is someone who can help other people understand and communicate better. I want to be a story teller, a teacher, a confidante, a translator, a tool-giver, a linguist.


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