My mother is from Scotland and my father is from Trinidad. When those two met in Edinburgh and had kids, they eventually ended up living in the Caribbean, first Jamaica and then Trinidad. The world was less connected then. I grew up in a tropical paradise, which I despised for its smallness and lack of connection to the world. I could not wait to get out. (Now I am much more appreciative). When I was 14 I wanted to be an Astrophysicist. My favourite book was a book on physics and philosophy and I spent many fruitless hours trying to get my head around quantum mechanics. I’m sure I must have been unbearable. I applied to universities in the Big World outside and got funding to go to MIT for my undergraduate education where I double majored in Math and Philosophy. The MIT decision was a turning point--- it could have been very easily another university and another path. I remember filling out the forms to accept Princeton, and waking up at six am to retrieve the envelope so that my mother wouldn’t mail it, and replacing it with the envelope accepting MIT instead. If I hadn’t gone to MIT, I would not have taken my first linguistics class as an undergrad in the philosophy programme. It was with Sylain Bromberger, and I remember my epiphany moment. He put the following sentence up on the board `The girl saw the boy with the telescope’, and drew two different structures corresponding to the two different meanings. That just exploded in my head. Ever since then, I have been obsessed with the syntax-semantics interface and particularly structural meaning.
Linguistics arrived in my life in the most unexpected way. It was 1983 when I heard about it for the first time. I was about to start high school, and a new language instructor arrived into Lámud, a little town of about 2000 people in the foothills of the Peruvian Andes. He came from Lima, the capital of the country, full of enthusiasm and all these “new” ideas about language. And one day, he taught as to draw syntactic trees. This is how I first became fascinated by language structure.
For most high school graduates from the interior of Peru, going to college means moving to Lima to compete with thousands of others from around the country to get a spot into a university. At that point, my high school instructor, who by then became my brother-in-law, suggested that I seriously consider linguistics. The prospects of getting into a field that almost nobody had heard of was not very attractive at the time. But given that I had limited choices, in 1988 I applied to the Linguistics program of the National University of San Marcos, still the only public university in Peru that offers a bachelor’s degree in Linguistics.
To introduce myself, I am a Burmese Citizen (ethnically Arakanese, also known as Rakhine now), born and raised in Myanmar, also known as Burma in English, and did my formal schooling up to a Masters at the University of Yangon. I currently teach Burmese at INALCO (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations) in Paris, France, after 20+ years of teaching Burmese (and French) at Cornell University in the US. So with this multicultural/lingual experience, I should certainly be considered as a linguist, right ? At least according to some members of my family in Myanmar, I am a linguist, because I speak « several » languages. ☺ If I found their reasoning rather amusing, I think it is not far from reality, since I have always been working with languages (be it by teaching, learning, playing with languages, etc. which require reflections on the functions of languages ...)
My identity as a formal creolist has been shaped by interplay between my country of origin and my formative educational background. I am a native speaker of Mauritian, a French-based creole spoken in Mauritius off the coast of Madagascar.
At a young age, I became painfully aware of how prejudices plague Mauritian creole-speakers and, in my particular case, the Creole community. I learned on the playground that speaking patois marks one as uneducated. My formal education was conducted in a colonial language but my family spoke creole at home. Mauritian education is built on the British colonial system but strives to accommodate the linguistic heritage of Mauritians—other than those of African descent. Mauritian creole—natively spoken by more than 95% of the population—only gained ancestral language status in 2011.
I remember well the day I decided to major in Linguistics.
When I started at the University of California at San Diego, I was a biology major: I wanted to be a mycologist. What changed my plans was a two-credit chemistry lab course where, basically, I could never get the experiments to work. One experiment was about measuring an impurity in a sample of iron filings, and the first stage involved dissolving the filings in acid. Mine would not dissolve. It was then and there that I realized that my chances of success in laboratory science were slim, and I decided to switch my linguistics minor to a major.
I had long been interested in language. I studied several Celtic languages by myself when I was in high school. I even made up a language, and I invented several properties for it that I thought were novel, and at the same time within the realm of what a language logically might do.
Becoming a linguist was partly a matter of chance (or luck!) partly genuine interest. As a junior high school student, I was convinced I wanted to become a teacher. I guess I wanted to be a teacher of French, sometimes an elementary school teacher. High school changed things, and as I turned 16 my interests started fluctuating (almost weekly). I started considering many possible paths: journalism (because I had a radio show with friends at the time), philosophy (because epistemology was my favorite topic), classical languages (I was in love with Latin and Greek), theatre (because I was playing theatre with an amateur group, and asked by a professional group to join them)… too many options, and I had to make a choice. At some point, I had to choose between becoming an elementary school teacher, studying language and literature, or a new undergraduate program at the University of Lisbon: a program in Linguistics. I’m a literature freak, a compulsive reader, but I never liked reading literary critics. I couldn’t picture myself in that world. So, I was left with two choices. I found the structure of the new degree quite interesting, although I had no clue about what formal linguistics was about. I saw that there were courses in cognitive psychology, mathematical methods in linguistics, sociolinguistics, and I found it a perfect cocktail! But still I couldn’t make up my mind… So, I flipped a coin, and the choice of the coin was Linguistics! I’m sorry I didn’t keep that coin as a little treasure.