My philosophy of language

I view language as a complex tool of human communication, mostly expressed acoustically or visually. In the modern milieu of linguistics in North America, the field can still be classified within two camps: functionalism and Chomskyanism (generative linguistics). If I were to simply classify myself in a Functionalist vs. Chomskyan continuum, I would learn very highly functionalist. Although I believe in the existence of linguistic universals, I do not see any reason to attempt to analyze language itself. Rather, I am interested in viewing how individual languages or language families express ideas or emotions and what syntactic, semantic, and discourse structures are used in doing so. For example, how do speakers of Burmese express uncertainty in written/spoken discourse, and do speakers of Rakhine, a related Burmic language, use similar structures when expressing uncertainty?

Linguistic area

My linguistic area of focus is Burma (Myanmar), specializing mostly on Kuki-Chin languages and their diaspora communities. My Master’s thesis focused specifically on Sizang Chin (ISO-693: csy), which is a language native to the southern part of Tedim Township, Chin State, Burma (တီးတိန်မြို့နယ်၊ ချင်းပြည်နယ်၊ မြန်မာနိုင်ငံ). I have also done preliminary fieldwork on Ngawn Chin, some of which resulted in this presentation at the International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics (ICSTLL) in 2020.

View on learning field languages

I personally believe that researchers planning on doing long-term linguistic fieldwork should invest the time and effort into learning both their field language (FL) and (at least) the language of wider communication (LWC) that the speakers would know, to a CEFR B2 level, if at all possible. If it proves challenging to reach a B2 level in the FL, the researcher should at least strive to attain a B2 level in the LWC or national language.

Now, why do I give preference for the LWC instead of the national language? I’ll give an example of my fieldtrip to North East India, specifically to Churachandpur District, Manipur. As described by Pauthang Haokip, there are many Kuki-Chin languages in that Sprachbund (language area) and an interesting thing that I found is that each person would speak to another in their own language/dialect and be completely understood by the other. This, however, did not work for me, because to that point, I had only ever studied Sizang, which is not a local language of that area. Sure, it’s still a Northern Kuki-Chin language, as Paite, Thadou, Zo(u), Vaiphei, Gangte, etc. all are, but no one could understand a large portion of what I was saying. Similarly, even if I were able to speak Hindi, it would have barely helped me, at all, because Hindi is not an official language of Manipur and most children do not learn it to a fluent degree in local schools. English was actually more useful to me there. However, by the second time I arrived in Churachandpur, I had learned Tedim (ISO-693: ctd) to a reasonable degree, and was able to communicate just fine with the local Tedim diaspora and the Paite (a Tedim diaspora which migrated generations before the most-recent diaspora of Tedim who emigrated from Chin State). Even the Thadou/Kuki people I met in Churachandpur, often stereotyped as being proud of their language and being unwilling to speak to anyone in Paite, gladly spoke to me in Paite, as I fumbled with my Tedim in communicating with them. I had a much more enjoyable time and learned much more about the Sprachbund and the people there, because I was able to speak with them in my Tedim-Paite pidgin.

There is much talk now in Western academia about privilege and power dynamics. Regardless of ones position in this dialogue, I would argue that depending on ones language consultant to be able to give nuanced interpretation of their language in the language of the researcher places a lot of burden on the linguistic abilities of the consultant. Sure, this isn’t the 1970s and there aren’t too many peoples in the world that are exclusively monolingual. However, I believe it is only fair that the researcher attempt to meet the consultant halfway and have a B2 knowledge of a common language, in which translation, glossing, text analysis, and feedback may be discussed comfortably.

Why study linguistics?

I encourage prospective linguistics students to have a go at Speculative Grammarian’s satirical “Choose Your Own Career in Linguistics” game and actually give some thought into the commentary it offers. I — as someone who majored in German for my B.A. and Linguistics for my M.A. — realize that my chances of getting a tenured professorship in the West are very slim. I currently do not work in academia or in linguistics. This is why, if you look at my CV, you’ll notice that my publication rate is not that frequent. Part of this is because I moved to Burma in 2018 and worked as a teacher for over two years (in the middle of COVID-19 and now a coup). That being said, I majored in Linguistics because I genuinely enjoy it. I just had to prioritize making money and establishing myself in Burma (which is temporarily down the drain, thanks to the coup) before I could continue with my linguistic work.

From what I can observe, becoming a successful academic in linguistics in North America now often involves either double-majoring in something like compsci and focusing on Computational Linguistics (machine translation, corpus linguistics, POS tagging, etc.), focusing on Second Language Acquisition (which, let’s be honest, is a broader term for Teaching {English/Spanish/French, etc.} as a Second Language), majoring in some kind of area studies program, pairing your work with political science. My current thought is to leave that convoluted rat race and pursue a PhD in Europe and try to become a professional academic in Asia. That may change.