The day I fell in love with languages: Dr. Richter and field linguistics

Dr. Richter, who first introduced me to Linguistics
Dr. Richter, who first introduced me to Linguistics

Field linguistics … refers to the collection of primary linguistic data on the basic grammatical facts of a relatively little studied language in a relatively natural setting from ordinary speakers, and to the analysis and dissemination of such data.Pamela Munro

When did I truly fall in love with languages? I had been “dating” languages for a while—French, Latin, German—in my early teens. Then, the summer after my sophomore year in high school, I completely fell for languages after I took a full-blown linguistics class. The class filled me with solid information about the breadth of complexity in the world’s languages, but once we started learning field linguistics I discovered joy in diving in, asking questions, and figuring out the language from the inside, as if I were in the field among speakers of a language completely foreign to me. That joy determined the course of my life, and that joy has never left me.

I took a four-week intensive General Linguistics course during the summer after grade 10. It took place at the “Kirk Academy” (now defunct) for high school students at Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University), in Kirksville, Missouri, the same place I described in my last post. It was my fourth year of “nerd camp,” and my last because I couldn’t imagine what course could top this one. I had found myself at the pinnacle of language love.

The course was taught by Dr. Gregory Richter, Professor of Linguistics at Truman State University, who works in formal linguistics, but also has published translations of Chinese and French into English. He is a true language-lover, loving every aspect of language and inspiring my love, as well.

The four-week course included all aspects of linguistics, formal and informal. In phonology we had to learn all the sounds that make up the diversity of human languages, including clicks, pops, and guttural sounds from across the globe. In morphology we studied Turkish word structure. In syntax we examined Chinese sentence structure. We learned physical anthropology, about how human beings evolved from Austrolopithecus and developed their language ability. He turned me on to the best films for language nerds, by showing the class the well-known “The Gods must be Crazy”, which features native speakers of !Kung, and “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” which offers the double appeal of being a German-language movie about the true case of an abused young man who had no contact with language for the first 17 years of life. Our final project was to create a language from scratch, describing the phonology, morphology, and syntax.

Then there were “field methods,” where I became completely smitten. We examined Swedish first, and then Chinese, from a completely inductive approach, as if we landed in a land with a newly-discovered, unrecorded language.
“How do you say, ‘the ball’?”
“How do you say, ‘the balls’?”
“How do you say, ‘a ball’?”
“How do you say, ‘some balls’?”
Starting from this simple dialogue (fortunately, Dr. Richter encouraged us to move away from talking exclusively about balls), our assignment as students was to compile a grammar of the language. We had no curriculum, we had no knowledge except linguistics in general, and we had to learn enough to describe the languages being presented.

This class super-powered me to learn languages from then on, whether in a class or not, whatever the environment. When I returned to high school, I started Russian, and the unique sounds (technically, the rear-unrounded vowel and palatalized consonants) were immediately audible. After taking Dr. Richter’s class, I determined at age 15 to major in linguistics in college, where I managed to take a full semester of field methods—whose awesomeness Dr. Richter already primed me for—where we worked on Setswana. Even up to my recent Oromo class (see this post and this post), I used the skills I gained from Dr. Richter’s class.

Dr. Richter was kind enough to answer all the letters I wrote him for many months, even as he went to teach English in China for a time. He equipped me with joy and knowledge—which led me to unending language love.

Who can you credit for your language love?
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6 thoughts on “The day I fell in love with languages: Dr. Richter and field linguistics

  1. I fell in love with languages when it hit me just how different they all were from English. And the more I saw that language was an expression of a larger cultural thought process, the more I wanted to understand how different people see the world. And language is one way to learn.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It was over the course of learning Russian in high school and then Chinese in the Air Force. I think I shared with you that my Russian teacher made sure we learned root words and had us practice using them to interpret words we didn’t know, and that was definitely part of it. My Chinese teachers were all native speakers, and while it was of course awesome to learn how to speak Chinese from them, it was also interesting to see what English usage errors they had in common; there seem to be certain commonalities in how a native Chinese speaker approaches English.

        I can’t think of one specific BIG moment, but there were lots of little moments of “that’s not how those concepts are expressed in Chinese / Russian. It’s completely different.” Or “this is an idea that’s commonly expressed in Chinese / Russian but we don’t really say in English.” The more those little moments opened my eyes, the more I appreciated language as an expression of an experience completely different than my own.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I wish I’d had such a clear indication of my love for languages. It would have saved a lot of decision-making at school! I remember learning Italian over the Easter break and realising that this was what I wanted to do. If only the epiphany had come sooner I might have been able to study more languages at school. Still, I can’t complain. Languages are a main part of my life now and I’m glad to have finally got to where I am! A very inspiring post. I might have to write one of my own!

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    1. Thanks! I had a build-up of language-love before this, but in this class it all came together. I had been learning multiple languages by the time I took this class, but after I took this class I had tools to steamroll ahead.

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