Home > Home life > How I got into sociolinguistics: A story

How I got into sociolinguistics: A story

As I fast approach close to three years now in my post at BCU, I sometimes think back on what actually led me into academia, and in particular, how I ended up pursing my own research interests in language, urban masculinity and violence. Admittedly, my own story isn’t quite as interesting as William Labov’s might be, but I still think it’s an interesting set of coincidences and serendipity that led me to where I am now.

I really didn’t know that I would end up becoming a linguist (seriously, who does?), but thinking back to when I was a kid, I realise that I had always been interested in language. I loved word games and vocabulary puzzles and dictionaries and so on. One of my favourite books as a kid was an illustrated dictionary and I would regularly flick through it and wonder where words came from and how we ended up with the words we use. One particular incident which stuck with me was me thinking about how the same word (in this case, it was the word yes) could mean different things depending on the way it was said. So if it was said with a high rising tone, it was a question, but if it was a level tone, it was a statement. Obviously, I didn’t know at the time that what I was dealing with was intonation, but now that I do, I kind of wonder whether I was priming myself for a career in linguistics.

As I was growing up, my interest ended up moving towards literature and language wasn’t really even touched upon during primary school or secondary school. I did a bit of grammar in Latin in high school and we did some SPOCA analysis in English as well, but that was about the extent of it. So literature was really the main focus of our study, and because I enjoyed reading, I did pretty well at it, scoring the highest band possible in my Higher English in 5th year. But I didn’t really want to pursue literature as a career. Instead was focused on joining the RAF.

At the age of 14, I joined the Air Training Corps. I had always been fascinated by the military, particularly the SAS and the Royal Marines, and joining the ATC had only made that interest even more acute. When I was about 16, I decided to apply for a 6th form scholarship to support me through university, after which I would go through accelerated promotion to Flight Lieutenant in the RAF and be earning £25,000 – £30,000 at the age of 22. Add in international travel, good healthcare, varied career opportunities, personal growth and advancement, and the fact that international conflict was more or less gone from the world stage (this was pre 9/11), I thought that it was a perfect plan. Until I applied at least.

I did really well at the interview stage and the interviewing panel was impressed with my knowledge of current affairs, RAF equipment, future acquisitions (the RAF was planning on purchasing the Euro Flighter at this point), and general motivation and commitment to an officer career. But I was about to be undone by the medical… About a year or so prior to me deciding to apply to the RAF, I was diagnosed with exercise induced asthma. When I was younger, I was perennially late for everything and as a result, I had to run everywhere to make up time. One day, I had an appointment at the doctors about something and I ended up having to run down about a mile or so to the surgery. When I got in, the doctor noticed I was wheezing and asked if I had ever been checked for asthma. I hadn’t but at that time, was running for the cadets in national cross country and track events, as well as doing my own training, so I was pretty fit and thought that there was nothing wrong with me. I was instructed to do a peak flow reading for a few weeks and right enough, after exercise, my peak flow, well, it didn’t peak… In fact, after working out, my output was always lower, suggesting to the doctors that something wasn’t right. But because outside of exercise my output was always fine, they could only diagnose me with EIA. Even after nearly 15 years of EIA, I’ve never had even one episode of shortness of breath that’s not been accompanied by exercise (or exposure to cats, but that’s another story…). Not so bad you’d think, except that the RAF don’t accept people with migraines, epilepsy, and… asthma.

I remember talking about my diagnosis with another guy at the cadets who was also applying to join and he told me not to tell them I had asthma, but in the spirit of transparency and honesty, I filled out the medical form with all my medical history, including the asthma diagnosis. Alas, I was told to come back in three years time if I had no symptoms and that I could go no further with the application.

To say I was devastated would be an understatement. At the tender age of 16, it was the single biggest disappointment of my life. I thought that everything was over and that I would never be able to fulfill my dreams of being an RAF officer. My mother phoned the recruiting agency to ask them to reconsider (a bit cringeworthy now I think about it…), I got signed letters from my doctors to say that I was medically fit, but nothing worked… I had to figure something else out, and the only thing that I could think of was going to university, doing my English degree, and becoming an English teacher.

So in 2000, I applied to University of Glasgow and was accepted into their undergraduate English degree programme. As a lifelong lover of literature, what happens next surprises even me…

– The Social Linguist

  1. Daniel Ezra Johnson
    March 20, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    Looking forward to Part II!

    • March 23, 2012 at 5:01 pm

      Thanks Dan! I think it’s really interesting to hear about how people got into linguistics (and academia more generally); it’s not a prototypical career choice for a young ‘un!

  1. April 21, 2012 at 3:09 pm

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