Saturday, September 1, 2012

First Things First

Hello, everyone! I'm Jennifer, and I'm moving to Edinburgh to do a Master's in Psycholinguistics at the uni there. Sounds exciting, right? Yep, it is. Scary as all heck, too!

I thought to start off, I'd answer a few common questions that I've been receiving in the run-up to this whole thing. Let me know if there's something else you'd like to know that isn't covered below.

Where/What is Edinburgh?
Edinburgh is the delightful capital of Scotland, located on the east coast of the country a couple hours north of Newcastle. Yes, it's rainy, and yes, it's cold, though not as bad as it should be for how far north it is. Also, for future reference: the city's name is pronounced "ED-in-brah" (that's /ɛdɪnbrə/ for the linguistically inclined). It is definitely not /ɛdɪnbɚg/ (with a hard "g") or /ɛdɪnbɚo/ or whatever...although it seems the American version /ɛdɪnbɚə/ is okay. I get the feeling that some people mispronounce the city's name for one of two reasons: 1) they've been trained by well-meaning phonetics teachers that "g" is not generally a silent letter, so they feel obligated to pronounce it and/or 2) they feel like someone somewhere is having a laugh at them if they use the syllable "bra" in the name of an otherwise (mostly) respectable city. As for (1): much as in French (and for many of the same reasons), spelling in the UK is made more of guidelines than actually rules; take, for instance, "Worchestershire." Also, you don't pronounce the "gh" in "enough" and "draught" as a hard /g/ sound, so why start now? And (2): sometimes you just have to suck it up and not laugh at people with a different cultural in linguistic background whose names sound funny. I once had to take a message for a friend of a roommate's named Porn, and had a Korean student in a grammar class named Bum Ho. In comparison, /ɛdɪnbrə/ is no problem.

What/Where is Scotland?
Scotland is the northernmost nation of the four that compose the UK. You know where England is? It's welded right on the top there, like a tartan hat. Y'know, just like Canada.

What/Where is the UK?
Don't ask something like that unless you want to know the answer.

Do they speak English there?
...Yes. Yes they do. England and Scotland have been legally united since 1707 and way before that through royal lineage. They have a long (complicated, and as I understand it in many places very bitter) shared history and along with that, a shared language, that being English. The Scottish do speak and understand English. Really.

But you won't be able to understand them because their accent is so unintelligible! Har har har!
This seems to be the first comment most people make when they learn I'm moving to Scotland. I think it's because "You'll have to wear a kilt then, har har!" doesn't work because I'm female and therefore it carries no threat to my sexuality, and "You'll have to eat tons of haggis!" doesn't work because no one's quite sure what it is, and the only other things anyone knows about Scotland are thistles and Braveheart. Ah well.

Why Scotland? Why didn't you stay in America?
Funny thing is, I tried. I applied to five schools, four of which were in America and four of which rejected me. It was a happy coincidence of the universe that the uni which accepted me was my first choice and also not in America (which was part of the reason it was my first choice). Why Edinburgh in particular? Because the program looks amazing, the people I have contacted have been supportive and helpful and lovely, and because I've wanted to live in the UK for years now (for various reasons), and because it looks like this. Also there's this, and this, and this doesn't hurt either.

What is psychology of language?
It's the study that lies at the intersection of the Venn diagram of psychology and linguistics. This is, of course, misleading--but the name, "psychology of language", is misleading as well. There isn't really any good name for this field, in my opinion; "psychology of language" is wordy and pompous, and saying you're a "psycholinguist" makes you sound, as one paper put it, like a deranged polygot.
The thing is, language is thoroughly, fundamentally, and inescapably psychological. Language only exists to fill the need of two distinct minds to communicate with each other, and thus is completely a product of the mind. The only way to really understand language is to understand the human mind, and thus linguistics and psychology are so inextricably intertwined that trying to separate them is like trying to tell where blue ends and purple begins. Yes, looking at ends of the spectrum, it's easy to see the two are different; but they blend so seamlessly into each other that trying to separate them is ultimately futile.
But I digress. What does one actually study if one is a psycholinguist? There are many topics that fall in this field; one way to think about it is that psycholinguistics attempts to answer the why of linguistics, along with the other human studies in the field (socio- and anthropological linguistics, for instance). This is on a different end of the scale than disciplines like phonetics, phonology, and morphology, which seek to answer the what and how. All the disciplines in linguistics are interdependent and important, but the completely human element of that psycholinguistics accounts for is what interests me.
I realize I still haven't answered the question. I'll try again. Psycholinguistics studies how language interacts with and exists in the brain and the conscious and unconscious mind. It studies how language is learned by children as an L1, and how both adults and children learn a second language. It studies how multilinguals manage their languages and how those multiple languages influence each other. It studies language impairments to discover  how the brain processes and produces language and why damage to particular areas causes particular impairments. It also studies psychological anomalies like synaesthesia to find out why certain people perceive language and reality different than others. Topics like these (and many others) give insight into why humans use language, why it works the way it does, and why it goes wrong or right.
Doesn't that just sound awesome?!
It's not just academic conceit, useful only to squint-eyed researchers, I promise. When we study language acquisition, we help develop and improve pedagogical techniques. When we study language impairment, we contribute to therapy and we increase knowledge about the structure of both mind and brain. And in any case, delving into the nature of mind and language and consciousness is pretty cool stuff all on its own.

Right, it's getting late and I'm off to bed. In the next few days I'll post a summary of my adventures in London. Oh, sorry too about the sparse layout and the weird colors; I'll fix it soon, I promise.

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