(Linguistic) Greetings from Austin, Texas: an interview about how one can become fascinated by language


Enjoy this interview with Dr. John Beavers, Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The interviewer was Éva Kardos, Junior Lecturer at the Department of English Linguistics.
In May 2012 the Department of English Linguistics of the Institute of English and American Studies at the University of Debrecen hosted the Workshop on Argument Structure (WAS), where one of the four invited speakers was Dr. John Beavers, an expert on syntax and lexical semantics.

Dr. Beavers defended his doctoral dissertaton entitled Argument/Oblique Alternations and the Structure of Lexical Meaning at Stanford University in 2006, and since then he has published extensively on a great variety of topics including lexical aspect and various argument structure phenomena in languages such as English, Japanese, Sinhala, and Spanish. He is now Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches syntax and lexical semantics both at the undergraduate and graduate level.

I have known Dr. Beavers for four years and I have always been amazed by his enthusiasm about language and linguistics. In this interview, which I conducted with him right after WAS, my main goal was to find out where this enthusiasm stems from. This is what I found.

Q: Many people find it difficult to identify what linguistics is concerned with. Can you explain to me briefly what this field is about?

A: Sure. I can say first of all that the problem with understanding what linguistics is is that it is not something that you learn about in high school. Most people don’t even discover it until much later, and at that point their perceptions about language have sort of set in, and linguistics is very different from what most people think of when they think of language.
Linguistics is the scientific study of language, where we listen to people speaking, and look at the way they write, and we try to find patterns in that, and form hypotheses about why they do what they do, and then we test these hypotheses against further data. What most people are interested in are not specific languages but the overall human capacity to produce language. The ultimate goal is to understand what we call “the human language faculty,” i.e. the ability to produce language and the knowledge you have acquired about your native language. The kinds of questions that linguists ask go all the way back to birth: when a kid is born, what is it about that kid that makes them immediately start to soak up language like a sponge? Then they spend the next 5-6 years acquiring the language very quickly and what is the knowledge that they are gaining and how is it happening so quickly? And finally they get to the end of the process, when they have mastered their native language, and the question is what is it exactly that they have learned, what’s in their minds that allows them to produce this really complex system? And that’s everything, everything from how you know where to put and how to pronounce the words in a sentence, to how you know what to say to your grandmother versus to your friends when you are out at a bar versus any other context, to how you negotiate subtle social differences.

Q: What made you become a linguist?

A: It was a series of things that made me become a linguist. When I was a kid, and this is all pre-Internet, you would have encyclopedias in your house and I would actually take volumes of these encyclopedias off the shelves and just sit there and read them. I used to read about history and about languages. One of my earliest memories of that was reading about Icelandic and how Icelandic has been isolated on an island and it hasn’t changed quite as dramatically as some other languages that have had a lot more contact with other languages. So the old poems from a thousand years ago are still readable to modern speakers, which is something that absolutely blew my mind. Also, my mother studied Old English when she was in grad school and used to do all these translations and tell me things about Old English, and that was another early thing that did it.
But the thing that more recently did it was that when I went to college, I was majoring in computer science and mathematics, but I took a linguistics class, Introduction to Linguistics, taught by somebody who is now one of my colleagues, Dr. Ian Hancock. I took it basically because I thought it sounded like a really easy A. But it was unbelievably fascinating. Ian talked about how English developed, he talked about Chomsky’s theories, he talked about the sound systems of languages, and he talked about the migration of the Gypsies from one place to another and how you can tell from their language where they’ve been. I found it all so amazing. And then I took a syntax class with another colleague, Steve Wechsler, and syntax was even cooler. So from that point onwards I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

Q: What are the linguistic problems that interest you the most?

A: My specific area is lexical semantics, which is the study of word meanings. The fundamental question I’m interested in is what you know when you know the meaning of a word, i.e. what knowledge you have acquired when you have learned that word. So one basic question is what is a word meaning? Is it just some entity that you can’t decompose, or is it something that you can pull apart and tease into its more basic pieces? And then if you can do that, which is what most people assume, the next question you ask is what kinds of basic semantic components can be built up into word meanings. And then, of course, the biggest question for me is how knowing what a word means tells you how to use that word in a sentence: where does it go in a sentence, what kinds of endings do you put on it, what kinds of other words is it going to be surrounded by? Also, I especially enjoy thinking about how word meanings vary across languages.

Q: I was lucky enough to sit in on some of your graduate level classes at the University of Texas at Austin and I saw that you are a very convincing teacher and you can explain very complex problems in a straightforward and simple manner. How do you do that?

A: First of all, by the time you get in front of the classroom, you absolutely have to think about how to make things accessible to people wo do not have your technical background. You are forced to turn around and think about things in a different way. And it’s actually amazing that once you start doing that, you also have to step back and ask yourself the question what am I really saying here, how can I characterize this in a way that makes even me feel like there’s a real idea there that anybody can get? And you start to see those patterns, and something that was a very technical thing suddenly starts to make sense.
But there is another thing that is really useful. When you go into a classroom, it’s too easy to fall into this artificial barrier where you tell students things and they write them down – as if they were unquestionable facts. I think it doesn’t necessarily need to be that way, because linguistics is a living, growing, breathing field where there are fights between people and there are ideas, but the ideas are just ideas, which are probably all wrong and we’ll have new ideas later. So one thing I try to do in all of my classes is to turn it not so much into something where I produce information, but into us all being members of the field together and trying to work through the ideas, thinking about them, pushing them, and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. We are a little bit more equal. And I find that once you break down that barrier, people want to learn new ideas and they want to figure out these complex things. So they do some of the work for me.

Q: You have also been taught by some of the best teachers and researchers in the field. Do you have any role models from your education at the University of Texas and Stanford?

That is a really hard question to answer, because to do that question justice I would have to list 20 or so names. And it’s hard for me to choose one particular name since I learned so much from all the people at the different universities I was at. I had fabulous teachers at both Texas and Stanford. As an undergraduate I think one of the most dynamic teachers I had was Robert King, who taught me historical linguistics. Bob was wonderful. He helped me understand linguistics as a field. He wouldn’t just teach us historical linguistics, he also told us about the fights and the battles in the fields. I try to introduce history into my classes now as well. My teachers at Stanford: Ivan Sag was such a dynamic lecturer as well. I was recently told that I apparently give talks like him, and I definitely try to emulate Ivan in many ways. Peter Sells could explain anything and make it sound really straightforward, even the most complex syntax thing. And I’ve had plenty of other teachers who have just been fabulous.
In terms of research I learned a lot from all of my syntax professors: Peter, Ivan, and Steve Wechsler. They taught me how to be really careful, crisp, and very thoughtful about what I want to say.
And, of course, my advisor, Beth Levin. I don’t even know how to explain just how incredible her research program is and how she can go from the finest-grained details all the way up to the biggest ideas. I don’t think I’ll ever be as good as her in that. That kind of carefulness with the big picture in mind is something that I got from her.
But there are other things about being an academic too. One thing I learned from Ivan and Steve in particular is how to have fun while you are grinding away. I’ve played music with all these guys. They don’t necessarily devote every single minute to their research. They know how to step back, relax, and enjoy life as well.

Q: You have just listed some of the biggest names in your field. Have you ever felt intimidated by any of these people?

A: Yes, I was pretty intimidated for a long time. I also suffered from something that everybody suffers from through most of their academic lives, the so-called “impostor syndrome,” the idea that you are a phoney. But there was a moment early in grad school when I began to realize that at the end of the day these guys are people, too. The first time you go out for drinks with your professors or maybe you go over to their house and you start talking about music you like, or a book, or a movie, you start to realize that you can communicate a bit more just as a person. Then you notice that the barriers start to come down and you feel a little bit more comfortable talking to them. But the feeling of meeting “big” people never goes away.

Q: You did your PhD studies at Stanford Unversity, which is arguably one of the most prestigious universities in the world. What was it like to be a Stanford student?

A: It’s hard to explain what an incredible academic environment Stanford was. Every aspect of that experience was phenomenal. Every graduate student in the department had a five-year fellowship, which meant that we were allowed to explore ideas without having to always be working on the side teaching. So you really had five years to try to hone your skills as a scholar under the direction of some incredible faculty. And they provided a wonderful place to be. The campus is like a resort. It’s gorgeous. It’s right next to the foothills in the Bay Area. You really can’t help but just feel inspired while you are there.
Also, my department organized numerous regular social events – often with wine and cheese even – to bring us all together to talk and share ideas and really form a community. I think that community that develops at Stanford is just so inspiring that you want to learn. And of course I should also add that Stanford has the ability and the resources to recruit top-notch faculty members. And that means everything to making that environment for study become what it is.

Q: Many Hungarian students would like to study at an American university at some point in their lives. What do you think are the most important things that US universities look at when they consider the applications of international students?

A: In terms of coming over as an undergraduate, my ideas are quite impressionistic. One thing that is becoming more and more obvious is that you need something that can make you stand out a little. Maybe you did something interesting in high school: maybe you worked on your school newspaper, you did some interesting community service, or maybe you did some interesting study-abroad program, something that you can have on your resume that adds that little extra push.
One thing that American colleges really do pride themselves on is trying to bring diversity to their student bodies. And they will take active steps to bring more perspective and more variety to the university. Somebody who can really try to bridge cultural divides is somebody that I think could do well at an American university.
If you are going to graduate school, I can give more concrete ideas. When you apply to graduate school in the US, the topline thing that the university wants to know is whether you can demonstrate that you have the ability to do original research. In linguistics we get a lot of application essays where they spend half the essay telling how they found linguistics and how much they love language. That’s always interesting and I really appreciate that, but at the end of the day, I would also like to know what they have been doing, what aspects of linguistics they like, what projects they have worked on. I would also advise undergraduates who think they might want to go into graduate school to try to join some research project. Also, try to work your way into a graduate class and get some exposure to what people are doing in more advanced areas of the field.

Q: Finally, let me ask you about Austin, a place lesser known than for example California and New York, which are what most people want to visit when they go to the US. If I had a week to spend in Austin, what would you recommend that I should do there?

A: First, get yourself hooked up with some Tex-Mex food, our local cuisine. We also have good barbecue in Central Texas. It’s not like other barbecues. Other barbecues tend to emphasize the sauces, but Central Texas barbecues emphasize the meat. And drive outside the city and get the country barbecue. That stuff is really good.
Go hear live music. There’s stuff everywhere. Jazz: we got it. Blues: we got it. Country: we got it. Indie rock: we got it. Punk: we got it. Heavy metal: we got it. Reggae: we got it. We got it all.
Try our local brews. They are really really good. Go see the Texas Capitol. It’s bigger than the US capitol. And just soak up the environment of Austin. It’s just got a great community. The mixture of the government, the university, and the artistic scene is just a lively place and Austinites are a very friendly bunch of people.
But also go to New York and California because they are cool, too.

Thank you for the interview and I wish you further exciting exploration of language and lots of success in teaching linguistics.


Debrecen, May 28, 2012

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