Thursday, January 24, 2013

Andrew goes to Taiwan (and does Linguistic-y stuff!)

We interrupt the jealousy-inducing saga of Andrew's winter travels around Korea for a brief update on what he's actually doing in Taiwan right now...

Every so often I get upset at myself for having left academia. Now, of course I haven't really left; this year is only a temporary hiatus caused primarily by my having graduated. But in choosing to go abroad after college instead of going straight to graduate school, I also chose to leave my studies behind for a while, and I miss them.

It doesn't help, either, that while I know I will eventually go back to school, I'm not sure exactly when, or for what, and I always feel the pressure to figure these things out as soon as possible. This was all very quarter-life crisis-inducing for me toward the end of last semester.

Now, however, perhaps it's safe to say that I've almost decided on pursuing graduate studies in Linguistics. I don't mean to be too certain of anything. But today, I ventured out to see what this field could possibly lead me to in the far future by visiting a linguistics professor and endangered languages specialist at National Taiwan University (台大).

Professor Sung Li-may was recently featured in an Associated Press article that my dad sent to me. As well as being a great read, it made me realize that I had the opportunity to see what the world of endangered language preservation and activism was like in Taiwan. For those who don't know, I majored in Linguistics at Swarthmore and was very involved in Professor K. David Harrison's Endangered Languages Laboratory, where he contributed to the growing field of endangered languages research.

I was excited to hear that there were linguists in Taiwan doing the same kind of work, so I arranged a meeting with Professor Sung and visited her today. I learned some very useful things from the meeting and came away from it feeling pretty positive, although I wouldn't say all my future doubts have been assuaged.

For example, Professor Sung was very clear from the start that in order to do endangered language research in Taiwan, you need to speak Mandarin Chinese. I am considered an "ABC" in Taiwan: American-born Chinese. Increasingly, ABCs are known to speak broken to poor (or even no) Mandarin, due to having grown up in the US and given an English education. I admitted to her that I was not fluent in Mandarin (although my Taiwanese isn't half bad) and that I studied it in college but didn't have enough practice. I definitely wouldn't be able to conduct graduate-level research in Mandarin at my current level, at any rate.

Why is this a problem? While American linguists have a habit of traveling all over the world and using interpreters -- often several layers of them -- in order to do their field work (i.e. English --> Oriya --> Remo --> Oriya --> English), Taiwanese researchers don't allow anything to be lost in translation if they can help it (i.e. Mandarin --> Kanakanavu --> Mandarin). The time and resources are too limited to have someone come along and try to conduct all the fieldwork in English; instead, they'd rather everyone speak this country's lingua franca. I think that a lot of the people interested in Taiwanese aboriginal languages (also called Formosan languages) also have a more personal investment in the welfare of the languages and the tribes that speak them; after all, they are all cohabitants of the same small, tropical island.

In the same way, I'm drawn to studying the Formosan languages because I view it as a part of my own Taiwanese heritage. Professor Sung seemed genuinely pleased at my interest; in Taiwan just as in the rest of the world, there really aren't enough people interested in linguistics! She said that we should keep in touch, introduced me to some of her graduate students, and even invited me to join their group on a fieldwork expedition in April! The invitation came after we switched from English to Mandarin for a bit, and she apparently judged my 國語 as "還可以". That made me feel marginally better about myself. Of course, with the Fulbright, it's impossible for me to make the trip, but the gesture was amazing, and I was quite happy.

Tomorrow afternoon, at least, I'll return to 台大's campus to meet some of the other graduate students and take a quick look at the kind of work they're doing. Mostly, at the moment, it's data segmentation and analysis using Praat. Boy, am I familiar with that program... I hope it'll be interesting, though. I hope that graduate students in linguistics don't turn out to just be zombies hooked to computers listening to unintelligible recordings of human speech. Because that's what I fear I'll be doing for three years if I do go into this field... Ha! I kid.

Did I mention yet that I'd be applying to graduate programs in the fall? NTU's own GIL is out of the question, but I think I ought to start looking for other programs to apply to. I guess I can say that I've been inspired to get this grad school thing on the road. In the end, it only took one hour this morning for me to completely reinvigorate my search for a career. How about that?

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