Emily Bender, University of Washington
I have a distinct memory of spending some day-dreaming time in middle school wondering why there were two kinds of letters ("vowels" and "consonants") and what the difference was between these classes anyway. Though I'm pretty sure I came up with some possible answers to that question, they have long since been covered over in my memory by classes in phonetics.
I also remember how frustrated it made my younger brother that I could leverage my middle-school French to make sense of the Italian we learned at a YMCA class ahead of a trip to Europe. He probably never knew how jealous I was that he had mastered practical skills like designing and building decks and other structures by high school: He knew from high school that he wanted to be an architect. All I knew was that I liked school, but I didn't know how to make a career out of that.
A couple of years after our trip to Europe, I had the good fortune to be an exchange student to France. While there, I noticed that situations that would have been boring at home, like dinners where I was the youngest person in the room by decades, were interesting. Whenever I wasn't interested in what people were talking about, I paid attention to how they were talking. I was interested in their pronunciation, in idioms I hadn't yet mastered, trying to pick out the gender of nouns, and more generally working out if there was anything in the grammatical structures they were using that didn't fit what I had learned so far about French.
Once I had actually become proficient in a second language, I looked back with amusement (and some embarrassment) at how naive I had been when I first studied another language. That had been in 6th grade when our teacher decided to include some Spanish lessons in the curriculum. I couldn't quite grasp the notion of not using English and have a very clear memory of thinking, "If they mean 'goodbye', why don't they just say 'goodbye' --- what's with this code?"
Even though my teachers and parents all knew about my deep interest in languages, no one around me had heard of linguistics. I discovered the field only because of some very useful advice I received my senior year of high school. A family friend suggested that I read the course catalog the summer before going to college, circling anything that looked interesting regardless of prerequisites. Back then, UC Berkeley's course catalog was a physical book that resembled the phone book of a small city. I read through it on a warm sunny day on our front porch in Seattle and circled courses across a variety of fields, including one called "Introduction to Language".
When school started that fall, I took French and economics and math. The French class was the offering intermediate between the language/grammar classes and the upper division literature classes, basically training in writing in French to prepare for writing about French literature. It was clear to me after that class that the upper division courses weren't going to be of interest to me, so majoring in French was out.
As I put together my schedule for Spring quarter, I had an elective slot to fill and looked through the courses I'd circled in the catalog the summer before. "Introduction to Language" jumped out at me. It was feasible to take as it had no prereqs. I signed up and was hooked on linguistics by the end of the first lecture. It took me the rest of the semester, however, to convince myself that I could major in something I perceived as very impractical.
While I was in high school, my grandfather had taken stock of my math and language skills and suggested international banking as a lucrative career. Years later, on hearing that I'd finished my Bachelor's in linguistics, my great-grandmother asked what that was. She got enough out of my explanation to connect linguistics to languages, and then decided that a place where they need people who speak many languages is in the courts. But she was convinced that her great-granddaughter was going places, and so concluded that I would be a judge. My parents, fortunately, had sent me off to college saying, "Major in whatever you want; we're sure you'll make something of it."
Berkeley Linguistics, like many programs in the country, cross-lists the advanced undergrad and beginning grad courses. It was probably from taking those courses that I became aware of career paths in academia and realized that it was in fact possible to build a career around liking school. While I enjoyed all of my classes at Berkeley, my favorite by far was syntax (taught by Chuck Fillmore and Paul Kay, from a draft of their Construction Grammar book). When I applied to various graduate programs, I learned about other syntactic frameworks, including HPSG and LFG, developed in large part at Stanford. I decided to go to Stanford for graduate school. I moved across the San Francisco Bay dreaming of melding all those frameworks into a "Generalized Bay-Area Grammar (GBAG)".
Once I started studying HPSG and LFG at Stanford, however, I noticed how each framework brought different kinds of questions into focus. I came to appreciate the value in the diversity of approaches. At the same time, I was also exposed to sociolinguistics, language acquisition, and computational linguistics, the latter primarily through my participation in the LinGO project led by Ivan Sag and Dan Flickinger. While I never lost interest in syntactic phenomena, exposure to these other subfields taught me the importance of working with naturally occurring data as well as the value of computers and computational methods for working with large data sets.
Now my work is much like the best part of those not-so-boring dinners in France (aside from the food!): my research centers on multilingual grammar engineering and so involves working with linguistic descriptions and naturally occurring data to find and solve linguistic puzzles: How does this language express that idea? How does that language handle this grammatical phenomenon? How can we build computer models that capture what is the same across languages while still staying true to the individual characteristics of each?
I also seek out opportunities to do outreach and try to make linguistics visible to others who are already linguists without actually knowing it. Through participating in the organization of NACLO (the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad) as well as science nights at our local junior high school, I've had wonderful conversations with junior high and high school students who are very excited about languages and how they work and been delighted to connect them with resources (including LINGUIST List) that can help them discover our field.