How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Linguistics


My college admissions essay said it all — if only I had stopped and listened to myself at the time. I was more concerned with finding a hook that would set me apart from the tens of thousands of other applicants, who were, of course, trying to do the same thing.


At my affluent public high school, potential pre-meds and Wall Streeters (yes, at age 17) lined the hallways. Foreign languages were a more unlikely passion. So I seized on that, choosing to narrate my journey from middle-school Francophilia to full-blown foreign grammar nerd.

Looking through the brochures accumulated on endless campus visits, I didn’t find many schools that offered bachelor’s degrees to people who studied a random assortment of languages, and wanderlust made me reluctant to choose one. But most offered a major in something called linguistics. Maybe by professing my appetite for such a charmingly obscure course of study, I could win over the admissions officers.

To demonstrate that I actually knew what “linguistics” meant, after a cursory glance at Wikipedia I wrote a closing paragraph that went: “What is the psychology behind language? How and why did different languages develop? More specifically, why do children automatically assume that the past tense of ‘go’ is ‘goed’ when they have never heard adults use anything but ‘went’? These are questions that fascinate me.” And so when asked for my tentative major, I filled out Linguistics, Code 638, on my applications.

I didn’t actually expect to study it. When I received my first Yale course catalog, before me was boundless possibility — Arabic? Japanese? Hindi? Or something more obscure, like Yoruba or Nahuatl? As an afterthought, I flipped to the actual linguistics section. A class called “Language and Mind,” billed as the study of “mental grammars and the nature and subdivisions of linguistic knowledge in connection with the brain,” caught my eye.

I showed up to class the first day. Prof. Maria Piñango was young, energetic and brilliant. I never imagined linguistics could be so science-y, but I liked it. I never really found anything I liked better, so sometime between sophomore spring and junior fall, I declared my linguistics major, putting me among the rare few who actually ended up studying what they had listed on their applications.

Fast forward to senior year, September 2008. It occurred to me that I should probably start thinking about my senior thesis requirement. So I arranged a meeting with Professor Piñango, now my adviser. I strolled into her office and said, “I need a senior thesis.” She replied, “What kind of project do you want to do?” I countered with, “Well, what are you working on?”

Turns out she was investigating the neurological underpinnings of syntactic structure, using functional M.R.I. to determine where in the brain certain elements of sentence processing take place. “Sounds cool,” I said. “Sign me up.”

A commitment of 10 hours a week is the guideline for seniors conducting original thesis research. As the semester progressed, it became clear 10 hours was just not going to cut it. I started devoting more and more time to research, subtly shifting around my other obligations (read: skipping class) so I could finish a report, test another subject or attend extra lab meetings. My once-weekly check-ins with Professor Piñango became twice-weekly, and then thrice, until I had all but moved into her office. The intensity developed organically; I barely noticed it.

In February of this year, on a sluggish Saturday afternoon, I was on the phone catching up with an old friend. The conversation was a typical snapshot of the second-semester-senior ethos: I was sick of classes, my extracurricular commitments had atrophied, and I was vaguely anxious about the future but not enough to fling yet another résumé into the bottomless pit of online recruiting. But my research was going really well! And I was really enjoying it.

“You know,” my friend David said, “this research is just about the only thing I’ve ever heard you talk about with any sort of enthusiasm or passion . . . except for, like, partying or the Giants or something. Why don’t you go get a Ph.D.?”

“I — but — ” I stuttered. Graduate school? Me? I’ve never been particularly academic. My parents weren’t academics. As a staunch commitment-phobe, I thought devoting one’s whole life to the study of some minute cluster of phenomena was utterly unfathomable. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized David had a point. There was nothing in college I cared about so deeply as this. I felt indignant; research had sneaked up on me. Who would have thought that I would discover, in February of senior year, that what I was majoring in was actually what I was interested in? I think Professor Piñango saw it coming before I did. The following Monday, I was anxious to share what I had termed my quarter-life crisis. I burst dramatically into her office.

“You know what I realized? I really like this stuff!” I exclaimed. “I can work on it for hours on end and it never feels like a chore.” She was unfazed. “Yeah? So? Go to grad school.”

I think I will.