You are what you speak

Emmanouela Tisizi

Not a day goes by without somehow reflecting on my past choices, many of which have undoubtedly been the wrong ones. When it comes, however, to the study choices I have made, I feel privileged. My academic journey began at the University of Athens, where I embarked on my BA in Greek Philology. Soon enough two master’s degrees in Modern Languages (Oxford University) and Education Language (University of Edinburgh) followed, after realizing that delving into languages fascinated me.

Greek is my first language, so obviously it is the one I use the most while I am at home. Since I was born and raised in Greece’s capital, Athens, I was taught the dominant Greek dialect, the one most Greeks use. Or, at least that’s what I thought until I started observing people and the various ways in which they made use of their language, when the context of each conversation changed.

The same goes for English as well, or any other language I suppose. I started learning English at the age of six and by the time I was twelve I felt pretty confident using it. It was at that time that I went to an American high school. Our teachers were all Americans and so was the kind of English that we were taught, which I found surprisingly easy to adapt to. When I first got to the UK to study, I had to erase –or so I thought- all the American English I knew and somehow adjust to the British reality. No more going to the movies; it was all about going to the theatre (and not theater!) now. And yet, these changes made English beautiful to me, in all its shapes and forms, as I was forced not to rest on my laurels but to keep exploring the language and its multiple usages.

So much, that I now find myself a PhD student in Montreal (McGill University), so far away from home, trying to re-forget and re-remember different idioms and rules. And it is worth all the effort because every feedback is another incentive not necessarily to overcome any linguistic barriers, but instead to embrace and challenge them. It is this belief which made me appreciate Education Language, coupled with the realization that there are as many language usages as there are people. In fact, through traveling around the world and studying, I came to realize that each person’s language is in fact manifold and entirely dependent on such factors as the context of each conversation and the interlocutors participating in it.(1)

Speaking from the standpoint of a non-native English speaker and an international student I feel, once again, privileged. Privileged because the culture of each country and the experiences of each person are starkly embedded in the countless dialects out there, and somehow I feel that being able to take a step back and marvel at their differences, similarities and interplay renders one’s apprehension and linguistic awareness richer and deeper. Most importantly, I reckon that by learning and relearning a language, a teacher becomes more qualified to familiarize his or her students with these variations and inspire as opposed to solely instruct them. As people in most places around the world say, you are what you speak!

(1)Relevant readings:
Brown, G. (1996). Speakers, Listeners and Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chambers, J. K. (2003). Sociolinguistic Theory: Linguistic Variation and its Social Significance. 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.
Labov, W. (2001). Principles of Linguistic Change, II: Social Factors. Oxford: Blackwell.
Saussure, F. de (1959). Course in General Linguistics. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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