Posts Tagged ‘how I got into sociolinguistics’

How I got into sociolinguistics: A story (part 2)

April 21, 2012 1 comment

So we left the last part of this story when I joined Glasgow Uni after not being allowed to join the RAF. Since the only thing I was really good at in high school was English, I decided that going to university to study English Literature was as good a route as any. My expectation was that I would finish up university and probably become a teacher, and I was ok with that. In September 2000, I joined as a dewy-eyed fresher in one of the most stunning university settings in Scotland (check out pictures if you don’t believe me) and started my undergraduate degree in literature.

Now, in order to be able to graduate with honours in English Literature at Glasgow, students also had to do a year of English Language. But my only experience of language studies at this point had been doing Latin grammar and I wasn’t particularly psyched at doing a whole year of grammar-type work… I remember bitching and moaning to my English teacher about having to do linguistics and he assured me that it would involve a lot more than just amoamasamat type declensions.

Anyway, I girded my loins and signed up for a first year of English Literature, English Language and Scottish Literature (mainly because I didn’t like the look of any of the other modules…), and by about week three of the course I found out that I. Hated. Literature. And I was completely unprepared for it. I don’t quite know what it was, but I hated the navel gazing, the whole I wandered lonely as a cloud schtick that was going on, the self-satisfied smugness of the lecturers, the…. pretentiousness of it all. It all just killed literature stone dead and as the year wore on, I couldn’t buoy myself up to be enthusiastic about it. Don’t get me wrong, I had some interesting conversations, read some great books I would never have read otherwise, and developed some important analytical skills, but it seemed to me that so long as you could argue your point convincingly, your points didn’t need to necessarily have… a point.

But in linguistics, I had a subject that inspired and interested me. I remember one of our first Old English lectures with Professor Jeremy Smith (who is brilliant). He started talking about noun paradigms and things like accusative case, nominative case and so on and I realised that I KNEW WHAT HE WAS TALKING ABOUT. This was the same kind of stuff I had done in Latin and it all made sense. Unfortunately, the only thing I remember of OE noun paradigms now is ‘-um on the end of nouns, dative plural. Dative plural, -um on the end of nouns’. Anybody who did OE lectures with Professor Smith at Glasgow University is bound together by that phrase. The rest of the course, sociolinguistics, phonetics, child language acquisition etc etc were all brilliant, and it made the next choice pretty straightforward.

So after my first year of university, I decided to ditch English Literature and concentrate on Scottish Literature and English Language. But I still had to take one more module, so I took… French, primarily under the pretense that it would help me with my linguistics. But the less said about that part of my degree, the better.

In my third year, my focus was purely on English Language and I took a combination of historical and contemporary modules, including History of English, Sociolinguistics, Grammar, Pragmatics, and Contemporary Scottish Fiction (I still loved Scottish Literature bizarrely enough…). The lightbulb moment where I realised that I wanted to become a lecturer was during my sociolinguistics class. We had been given a topic to present to the rest of the class and I had been given Wallace Lambert’s work on matched guise tests in Canada. I thought that the results were fascinating and put a ton of effort into my presentation, including dressing up in a suit and tie, PowerPoint slides and a handout. The works.

When I had finished the presentation and answered a few questions, I remember walking back to my seat thinking ‘this is what I want to do with myself’, and I think it’s at that point I finally had a path that I wanted to pursue. All I had to do was finish up my degree and then do a post-grad course.

Of course, the future is anything but smooth sailing…

The Social Linguist

How I got into sociolinguistics: A story

March 20, 2012 3 comments

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