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Erica Shafran, Fulbright to Austria for Linguistics

  • Personal Statement

    Erica Shafran, Austria, Linguistics

    "Ain’t ain’t a word, and it ain’t in my dictionary!” At first I was slow to understand, because “ain’t” flowed effortlessly as any other word off my tongue. By sixth grade I felt compelled to write “clean up” instead of “redd up,” but it wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college that I realized no one else called a rubber band a “gum band!”

    As a child, my mother would rouse me from my Jane Austin books with: “Erica, can you wush dishes while I redd up the kitchen?” I desperately wondered why my working-class parents could not speak like Mr. Dashwood’s family. For fun, I sought new words in the dictionary, still a current pastime. A second language acquired in college quenched this incessant need for new language input and strengthened the idea that language was a tool to manipulate, but only according to pre-set rules.

    As an English major, I felt the need to excise vernacular words from my vocabulary. I naturally adopted the language of academia. Thus, with every semester in college, the distance increased between my family and me. The education for which my parents sacrificed so much caused the alienation I felt from my home. I felt intensely disconnected from the world of my family because my identity had altered while theirs’ remained constant. One day, I told my sister about my problems with alternating between the languages of two worlds. She was outraged when I told her I felt alienated from my department store coworkers because of language. “How can you say your coworkers didn’t understand you! They’re not stupid. I don’t know why you think you’re better than us!”

    Until my sophomore year of college, I thought a sensible career for a “good girl” would be a teacher. Like my reduction of vernacular words, I chose the “right” career path. Once I made my first independent decision to add a German major to my education degree, more were to follow. I re-evaluated what was more important: “right” according to society or “right” according to me.

    In a linguistics class my senior year, I realized what language has in common with my dilemmas. I was struck by the real-life consequences of language: dialects, like my decisions, were not “bad;” they should be treasured and preserved for the diversity they offer to our language smorgasbord. Just as I decided to claim my life by making my own rules, so, too, did I decide to own my vernacular language. After all, Pinker points out that all dialects have their own complex set of rules. If one would ever hear me at home, it would be noticeable that I pepper my speech with “ain’ts” and other such novelties. B.L. Whorf holds that “language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about,” while I hold that decisions shape how we live and determine what we are able to dream about. Language has certainly altered my dreams—it is my goal to become a researcher in the area of linguistics, studying how different definitions of reality affect the way we approach language and language learning in America.