Interview with Geoffrey Keith “Geoff” Pullum – a British-American linguist specialising in the study of English
1. When and where did you start to learn your first foreign language? What language was it?
I was in high school at the age of about 12, and started to learn French. In the first class we were made to chant [papavavitalagar] over and over again to a fixed rhythm, without being told what it meant. (I see now that it was Papa va vite à la gare, “Father goes quickly to the station.”)
2. Why did you start learning the foreign language? Was it compulsory, or did you have any other motivation?
It was a compulsory part of the high school curriculum. I had no other reason to pick French.
3. What was the most difficult for you to learn? What is the best way to learn a language according to you?
The hardest thing for me was to learn about grammar and phonetics without having any of it properly explained in the way someone would explain a subject scientifcally. I know now that what I needed was a linguist’s introduction, but back then I didn’t know what linguistics was.
4. Did you like learning a foreign language? Why yes? Why not?
I didn’t really like anything about being in school. I was a bad student, I did not pay a lot of attention, and I did not work hard. It is surprising I learned as much as I did.
5. What languages can you speak?
I would not say that I am really fluent in any language other than English. I can speak clearly and intelligibly (for example, I could present a short speech or read something aloud), if I have time to prepare, in French, Spanish, German, or Jamaican Creole. With a month or two of residence in France or Spain or Germany or Jamaica, under conditions where I had to use the language, with a bit of work, I could probably become fluent quite quickly.
I have studied a little Hindi, and could perhaps deliver a short speech in that too.
The sad thing is that I was never in the position of going to live in a country and use a language that I had already studied.
6. When did you start having a feeling that you are able to speak a foreign language fluently?
Sadly, I don’t really think I’ve ever had that feeling. I would love to know the feeling, but it has never really happened.
7. Is there any language you would like to learn? Why?
Any language would be interesting, but Finnish would be my top choice (if nothing else but personal joy were at issue), without a doubt. I don’t know why I love the sound of it so much, but I do. I will never forget the day I was walking past a shop in Helsinki and saw this word on the window:
and I realized that I knew exactly what it meant and I knew why. Yli– “high”, –opi– “knowing”, –sto “place”, kirja “book”, kauppa “shop”: high-learning-place-book-shop = University Bookstore!). It felt marvellous to work that out. But being able to analyze a few words or sentences in Finnish is nothing like being able to engage in a Finnish conversation.
8. Which language is according to you: the easiest, the most difficult and the most beautiful?
I’m a professional linguist, and I am well aware that no languages are easy; they just hide their complexity in different ways. And no language is difficult; they just put up different layers of initial hindrances.
Finnish sounds wonderful to me, and I know I would find some parts of learning it easy, and some parts hard.
One thing I know I would find hard initially would be tone (I have never uttered even one word in a tone language — in China I do not even say hello), so the languages of East and South-East Asia (Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese) strike me as a very great challenge. And Japanese and Chinese have such extraordinarily complex writing systems that I wouldn’t dream of starting to learn to read or write either of them.
As for beauty,
I think any language will start sounding beautiful
once someone you love and admire is saying things in it
that you enjoy hearing.
9. When and why did you decide to become a professional linguist? Have you experienced any funny / terrible story thanks to languages?
I became a linguist to resolve a tension I first encountered at the age of 14 when I found that if I wanted to continue with chemistry (which I thought would be interesting) I couldn‘t start Greek, and if I did Greek I would have to drop chemistry. I had a scientific attitude of mind, but languages seemed interesting subject matter.
The tension was resolved when by accident I discovered in 1967 (five years after I left school) that there were now university B.A. courses in linguistics. By a piece of luck, despite my terrible school performance, I managed to get admitted to one such course: the B.A. in Language at the University of York. For the first time I found I was interested and wanted to work. Everything changed. I got a First Class degree; I went on to get a Ph.D.; I taught linguistics at University College London; I moved to America and became a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC); and eventually I was invited back to Britain to become Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, the best job I‘ve ever had.
I have had a few funny experiences with languages, and here is one.
I served as Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at UCSC. One of my duties was to award the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at a big ceremony each summer. Another was to try and increase the numbers of graduate students from under-represented groups like Mexican Americans and African Americans. We began to have some good successes getting Mexican American students into science departments, and reached the point where a really significant number of Spanish-speaking parents were attending the degree ceremonies. I realized that I should welcome them in their language. So with a Spanish-speaking staff member I worked out a speech of welcome in Spanish, and practiced it. With my phonetics skills I was very good at it; I really sounded like a fluent Mexican Spanish speaker.
The day of the ceremony came, and I did my Spanish speech really well; the parents from Mexico and Latin America were delighted. But I had forgotten one thing. All the Spanish-speaking parents now thought I spoke perfect Spanish.
At the end of the ceremony we gathered together outside to drink champagne and eat strawberries. Spanish-speaking parents started coming over to talk to me enthusiastically about… what? I couldn’t understand anything they said! I did a lot of smiling and nodding, and said nothing at all.
Since then I have never forgotten
that being able to speak to someone is almost useless
if you can’t understand what they say in return!
About Geoffrey Keith “Geoff” Pullum
- Professor of General Linguistics and Head of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh.
- Some of his works are:
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002) – co-author
The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language
How many possible human languages are there? (1983)
„Such that“ clauses and the context-freeness of English (1985)
Learnability. The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (2003)
- Awards: Leonard Bloomfield Book Award (2004); Linguistics, Language, and the Public Award (2009)