Immediately after I graduated in philosophy, with a thesis on Logical antinomies, I remember saying to myself: words, words, words, I have enough of words! I did not know, but my destiny was linked to words.
So many things in life happen by chance. I moved to Pisa from Ferrara for family reasons and I saw a notice for a grant at Pisa University in a completely new field: Computational Linguistics. I tried applying, knowing that it would have been impossible. But I won it. This was the beginning.
I started studying that new area … and I loved it. It was not just words! I also started, as an autodidact, to write programs by myself, in the language of the time: PL1. The Pisa Summer Schools that Zampolli organised (in the ‘70s and ‘80s) were very influential for me (as for many others): I met the most brilliant researchers and I found them fascinating. I did not know that I would have become friend with many of them. I just followed the first as a student, then I was involved in the organisation, and finally I gave some lectures.
I am not your typical linguist. In fact, my first degree is in meteorology with a minor in math! Despite this, I have always been fascinated with languages – most likely because I grew up in a multilingual environment: my father and his parents spoke Quebecois, my maternal grandmother spoke Pugliese, and my maternal grandfather spoke Neapolitan. Clearly, hearing people around me speak something other than English was normal for me from a very young age, but I never gave much thought to the rich sociolinguistic world in which I lived. I always enjoyed reading and writing as well, so it only seems natural to me that I became an applied linguist.
I grew up in the family of linguists (my father is a linguist, my mother used to be a school teacher), so it is not a coincidence that I became a linguist. (My younger brother also became a linguist.) However, looking back, I see that there were several important turning points and experiences that lead me to the field of linguistics.
I was born and grew up in Japan, but when I was 10, I had the chance to spend a year in Boston with my family. There, we had many positive experiences interacting with people/students from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. My brother and I went to a public school, and the atmosphere was one of respect for diversity. Thinking back now, this positive experience affects my stance as a scholar/teacher.
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.