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The Mechanics of Language

Introduction

My name is Alina, and I am a first-year PhD student in Linguistics. The most common two questions I get asked when I say this are: “What is Linguistics?” and “How many languages do you speak?” So, I’ll begin by answering these. Linguistics is the “scientific study of language”. It is a vast discipline, but some examples of what linguists are interested in are: how grammars are constructed, how language changes, what the similarities and differences are between the languages of the world, how children and adults learn languages, how people’s use of language varies according to social factors (gender, age, context etc.), how the order of words in a sentence gives that sentence meaning, the list goes on…!

As for the second question, being a linguist does not automatically mean you speak tons of languages (though some do)! I speak French, I am learning Spanish, and I understand Reunion Creole, which is the language that my PhD research is on. Reunion Creole is spoken on the island of La Réunion, a French overseas department (next to Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean). Creole languages are relatively new languages (compared to English or French, for example) which arise when groups of speakers with different native tongues are found in a situation where they need to communicate with one another. This happened in La Réunion when French colonisers settled on the island and imported slaves from Madagascar and East Africa. Later, immigrants from India and China came to the island to work. Over the subsequent generations, the language formed through the interaction of these groups of speakers. It is now the native language of the majority of the island, spoken alongside French. Many of the words in Reunion Creole are derived from French words, so it may sound familiar to a French speaker, but the grammars of the two languages are different. 

Cap Noir, La Réunion: here’s a picture which shows you the beautiful mountainous landscape of La Reunion

In Depth…

So how did I find myself doing a PhD on this topic?! I have always had a fascination for foreign languages, and just words in general, which led me to study French at undergraduate level. During my degree, I chose modules in French Linguistics and really enjoyed them. I enjoy the discipline as it applies the scientific rigour and logic of the Sciences and Maths, to an inherently social phenomenon: language. In the third year of my degree, I got the opportunity to go on a year abroad. I chose to study in La Réunion, and it was there that I discovered Reunion Creole.  On returning, I decided I wanted to continue studying and explore the subject of Linguistics in more depth with an MA and PhD.

My PhD project investigates the syntax and focus structure of Reunion Creole. This is essentially how the word order of a sentence can be manipulated to change its emphasis and by consequence, its meaning. And what is the point in this research? Firstly, a better understanding of the mechanics of individual languages enables us to make comparisons with the languages of the world. This in turn allows us to better understand the faculty of language, which is a fundamental part of our existence. Secondly, knowledge of the technicalities of a language also enables us to better teach it in the classroom. In La Réunion, Reunion Creole is an officially recognised regional language and French is the national language. Historically, French has been more highly regarded and continues to be the language of the law, administration and schooling.  Like many creole languages, Reunion Creole has not always been highly regarded with respect to French, despite it being the native language of the majority of the island. A person’s mother tongue is a fundamental part of their identity, so I consider it very important that it be valued. Furthermore, research has suggested that bilingualism has cognitive benefits, which may reduce the likelihood of dementia, for example. It is therefore imperative that bilingualism is encouraged, so any research promoting historically undervalued languages serves this purpose.

La plage de l’Ermitage, La Réunion. 

Going Further…

If you’re interested in languages generally, there are plenty of resources that may feed your curiosity:

Grand Bénare, La Réunion: at the top of a hike in La Réunion – above the clouds!