Author Archives: SarahLinguist

About SarahLinguist

Linguistics PhD Student; Part-Time Photographer

The Course with the most Impact

Elmina Castle teaches humanity, the understanding and kindness given to all people, better than anyone ever could.

Men and children are following you, asking for your name so they can sell you things until you walk through a narrow doorway that leads to a bridge. The moat below is empty. You pass through a narrow corridor that leads you to a courtyard. What sits in the middle used to be a church. Now, it serves as a museum. And once you sit on the tall flight of steps facing the old church, to the right you see a door marked with a skull and an ‘x’. The door of no return. Some of my ancestors, as did the ancestors of many in the Black Diaspora, were forced through this tiny door (if not a door like it elsewhere) after being left to sit in their own excrements, to ache with hunger, to be abused by European soldiers for days, weeks at a time.

NYU’s top-performing undergraduates within the College of Arts and Sciences have the opportunity to enrich their college experiences by joining the Presidential Honors Scholars program. To participate, scholars must enroll in non-credit courses; and I have been the graduate assistant for the Accra section offered to sophomores since the 2018-2019 school year. My primary responsibilities include managing our section’s class site, assisting the lead faculty during bi-weekly seminars, and chaperoning students during the January trip. That’s right—I get paid to go to Ghana.

For one week, students are introduced to Ghana in various ways. They learn how to haggle in Makola Market, walk through canopies at Kakum National Park, and, most recently, cook jollof rice. As fun as these parts of the trip are, the experience that usually affects students the most is when we visit Elmina Castle. I’ve seen both Black and White students cry as they reach the door of no return. I’ve heard generational trauma brought about from slavery echo as they scream, “Never again!” I thought that I would have an easier time during my second trip than I did during my first trip, but I didn’t. It was just as hard to walk through the spaces where tens of thousands of people were sold and consequently treated inhumanely.

I keep these photos of Elmina as reminders of how easy it can be to not see each other as people. For example, those people who don’t wear masks? They’re “anti-maskers.” We can then strip away their humanity, what it means to be human, by attributing racism and hypocrisy to this label, especially after what happened at the Capitol. These “anti-maskers” then become synonymous with “Trump supporters”, “domestic terrorists”, and “Republicans.” Through these labels, we no longer see these people as people. What is unfortunately true is that Black people in the US have not been seen as people systemically for generations, unlike these “anti-maskers.” For example, Chief Justice Taney’s opinion on the Dred Scott case, which argued that Black people were not US citizens and therefore denied rights guaranteed by the Constitution, was based on the opinions of Dr. J. H. Van Evrie, who wrote in the introduction that Black people are forever subordinate to the superior (White) race as per “the natural relations of the races.”

The above is not meant to suggest that “anti-maskers” are directly comparable to Black Americans; rather, the point is to recognize how quickly we can use labels to dissociate a person from their humanity. This is a lesson that applies in both research and teaching. I make it a point to diversify participant pools because generalizations about language processing should include, and therefore apply to, all races. I try to interact with students as people (first) who study in college (second), though I often make mistakes which reflect how I’ve been socialized. And in those moments when I make a mistake, I wish for grace, courteous goodwill. If we can change Elmina Castle from a trading post of enslaved people to an historic site which teaches humanity, we can change ourselves to become more understanding and kind toward others so long as we allow each other some grace when we do make mistakes.

Why I Study Linguistics

Don’t start your sentences with conjunctions.

Don’t end your sentences with prepositions.

You can’t use “is” with 2nd person pronouns; you must use “are”.

There are so many of these kinds of rules about proper English taught in school. I liked English class for all the reading, but I hated doing composition. I didn’t do as well in my English classes because I didn’t follow these grammar rules. Not in the way I talked at home. Not in the way I talked with friends. And especially not in the way that I texted (because this was when we still used T9). How was I supposed to know all of these grammar rules?

With hallmates at a UGA football game (Go Dawgs!)

I was introduced to linguistics by my, then, undergraduate advisor. I had accepted that I wasn’t passionate about Chemistry, and I had decided to switch my major to International Affairs. (This was because I really liked Model UN in high school.) She looked through my transcript and asked about the foreign language classes I was taking. Since I liked learning foreign languages and did well in science, she recommended that I try a linguistics class.

So, I did. I took the introductory class. One of the first things taught in most introductory linguistics classes is that grammar consists of abstract representations and rules (or, linguistic knowledge) which we use to process and produce language. For the first time, I was being told that all of the rules which policed the English language were designed by people. People agreeing on prescribed standards meant to discern who could be considered a proper speaker of the language from…others. For the first time, I was being told that real grammar was meant to be investigated because its representations and rules are innate, existing in the black box that is our minds. We’re all born with the same set of rules? There are patterns that exist across all languages? And for the first time, I felt like I was being armed with tools to challenge all these proper English rules I was taught in grade school.

At my graduation with my sorors

But then, I was wrong.

I eventually learned that much of linguistic theory was built from this English language spoken by people who didn’t look like, talk like me. Sure—examining other languages helped test existing hypotheses about grammar rules, but I didn’t see hypotheses formed from phenomena observed in other languages (especially the languages I spoke at home). The deeper I went into theory, the more I saw people who looked like, talked like the teachers who tried to teach me the rules of proper English. And I wasn’t going to tell the theorists that their English was wrong or bad. And I wasn’t going to accept the theorists’ proposals as my truth. Was their ideal speaker-hearer (Chomsky, 1965) someone like me?

I doubt it.

And that’s okay. I am my own ideal speaker-hearer. I study linguistics with this in mind.

References

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press.

Why I Study Bilingualism.

If you look up the word “mutt” in Merriam-Webster, you’ll find two definitions:

1. a stupid or insignificant person
2. a mongrel (or, mixed-breed) dog

I was ok with being called a “mutt” for a long time not recognizing the association between being mixed and being stupid or insignificant. And I honestly believe many people use this word for people of mixed-race with the second definition in mind. I also know that we all move through the world with biases we’ve been socialized to believe. This is why I study code-switching specifically and bilingualism more broadly.

When I was growing up, teachers would say that raising children with multiple languages would be too confusing, even potentially delay their academic progress compared to their monolingual peers. My mom didn’t care. She put me in a hangul hakkyo, a Korean-language school. I was taught how to read and write in the language of home, similar to how I was taught in the language of school. 한국 사람 이면 한국말 배워야 해요. (=If you’re Korean, you must learn Korean.) What’s unfortunate about this process—which in turn led me to dive deep into Korean music, movies, and culture—is that this didn’t really exist for another language I grew up speaking.

Black English: the language of my dad, his parents, and his parents’ parents. But for me, being Black in the South wasn’t like a Spike Lee joint. Growing up, I went to church on Sundays in white, lace-trimmed socks and a pair of patent Mary Janes. I learned to drive manual in an empty parking lot, where my dad told me three things I should do if I ever got pulled over by a cop: (1) keep your hands at 10 and 2, (2) listen carefully to what you’re being told, and (3) only speak when spoken to. Then there were the annual family reunions, the pot of chitlin’s on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the hair braiding sessions…

My parents, in Korea, while they were still dating.

It’s amazing how certain memories will stick with you forever. Like this one memory from when I was in high school, I overhead my mom talking with some White woman. This White woman went on to say something like, “It’s a shame she’s mixed. How is she gonna marry when she gets older?” I knew that the she was me in that conversation. And from then on, I couldn’t help but notice every time someone, anyone, would swish my racial identities in their mouth with a slight twinge of distaste. “So what do you like to eat?” “Fried chicken and kimchi. Sometimes together.” “Do you speak Korean?” “Yes.” “But you’re Black?” “Yes, and Korean. So what.” I could see how hard it was for them to reconcile two, disparate racial identities into a single individual.

I still see how hard it is for people trying to reconcile how one individual can embody multiple races, multiple languages. I was taking a class on second language acquisition when I was an undergraduate student, and that’s when I learned about different models about how multiple languages can be learned. None of them resonated with me. I grew up learning more than one language. I started to look at what bilingualism researchers had to say long after I had already graduated from Georgia. Not only did people start arguing that children didn’t grow up confused when learning multiple languages, but that bilinguals had this cognitive advantage.

I went from being considered confused to gifted. I didn’t think of myself as particularly “advantaged”, however. I struggled finding a steady job after college. I had to work my way up. I was hardly the top performer at anything, though I would do well enough to make money and keep my job. Where was this “advantage” in my brain? More importantly, when would I tap into this “advantage” if it existed at all? I appreciated the changing shift in people’s attitudes towards me and other bilinguals like me, but what’s my truth? And do these hypotheses help to explain my truth?

This is when I applied to PhD programs looking to further investigate my truth.

And so far, I’ve learned that I’m no “mutt.”

KidLang’s MEG Study

The KidLang Project in the Neurolinguistics Lab (PI: Liina Pylkkänen) at NYU is currently recruiting both children and adults to participate in a PAID brain-imaging study!

Child preparing to go into the magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine (pre-COVID)

Visit this link for more information about the study itself, and make sure you qualify per the following requirements:

  • Normal hearing
  • Normal or corrected-to-normal vision
  • Not color blind
  • No implanted metal in body (e.g., permanent retainer, dental implant, surgical pins)
  • No history of brain disorders (e.g., epilepsy)
  • No history of linguistic or cognitive impairments
    (e.g., diagnosed with Specific Language Impairment, Alzheimer’s Disease)

If you live in the NYC area and qualify by our requirements, sign-up using this link to schedule a visit to our lab near Washington Square Park!

KidLang’s Composition Study

The KidLang project in the Neurolinguistics Lab (PI: Liina Pylkkänen) at NYU has launched an online study designed for children AND adults!

Child participating in our in-person study while laying in our MEG machine (pre-COVID)

We are currently seeking adults and children (6+ years old) who are English or Spanish speakers to volunteer 10-15 minutes. If you and/or your child would be interested in participating in our online study, you will need to complete the study on a computer with internet access.

Please open the following link in a new browser window to participate: 
https://research.sc/participant/login/dynamic/F0BFDA5F-F951-4B60-8502-AD7C5B550FB8

Sarah’s Spanish/English Code-Switching Study

Do you speak both English AND Spanish on a regular basis?
If so, please participate in the following eye-tracking study from your own home!

This study is investigating how young children (~3 year olds) and adults process code-switching (or, when people switch languages within an expression) and single-language expressions. Despite COVID-19 putting a pause on conducting research in-person with children, I’ve adapted this study investigating English-Spanish code-switching among adults so that it can be done from the comforts of one’s own home.
Now all I need is your help!

A child participating in an eye-tracking study at our lab (pre-COVID)! Click on the image to learn about the Child Language Lab at NYU.

To participate, you will need a computer that has a web camera and internet access. This study will present both audio and images while your eye-gaze is being recorded. Please be mindful of the following before you start:

  • Sit in a space where your face is well lit 
  • Use headphones or turn on your computer’s volume so you can hear the audio clearly
  • Maximize your internet browser window (Google Chrome seems to work best) to make the images as large as possible

The study should not last more than 15-20 minutes (depending on how long you take breaks). When you’re ready, open the following link in a new browser window to get started: https://research.sc/participant/login/dynamic/0872B9FE-AC36-4161-A14C-2C5DDFE15887