Very recently, I have had the honour of interviewing Associate Professor Rebecca Lurie Starr, from the Department of English, Linguistics and Theatre Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
A/P Starr is a linguist specialising in language variation, change and acquisition in multilingual contexts, the sociophonetic construction of style, and discourse in media. She has also started Voices of Singapore, a project looking to discover more about the sociolinguistic development of Singaporean and ‘expat’ children living in Singapore. For more information about Professor Starr, her work and her research interests, you can refer to her website at https://www.rebeccaluriestarr.com/.
During the interview, I wanted to find out more about Professor Starr’s experience in the field of linguistics and what exactly linguistics comprises.
She first defined linguistics as the scientific study of language as a system – this differs from studying a language itself. How so? As Prof Starr put it, learning a language (Korean, for example), would involve learning how to communicate with others using this language, be it through the form of writing, speaking, reading, or listening. However, studying Korean linguistics would mean delving into how the language is structured.
What I’m sure will be of interest to our members is that although being fluent in multiple languages is not, she says, a prerequisite to working in linguistics, it would certainly help. As modern linguistics has been traditionally dominated by English-speaking countries, it is no surprise that there have been many linguists who predominantly work with only English, such as Noam Chomsky.
As for how linguistics has changed recently, it’s not so much how linguistics has changed internally, but how people’s attitudes towards it have changed. Professor Starr mentioned that twenty years ago, the limited media coverage of linguistics was often inaccurate or reflected outdated ideas about language, but now more and more linguistics-related media stories show a stronger understanding of the field, and professional linguists are increasingly being consulted for their views on issues such as regional diversity in accents, factors affecting child language acquisition, linguistic discrimination, and others.
The rising interest in linguistics is good news for those of us who have found that linguistics is not exactly a conventional path to walk, especially in a STEM-oriented country like Singapore. Professor Starr mentioned that something many people are unaware of is that linguistics is not straightforwardly a humanities subject. In fact, one of the things that first drew her to linguistics was that it involves a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods, and it lies at the intersection of the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. She notes that many science majors who take introductory linguistics at NUS find it “more technical than they expected – in a good way.”
Professor Starr also mentioned that one of the bright sides of studying linguistics was that everyone studying it has a real passion for it, and they are not simply pursuing a degree in this area because of familial expectations. She said one of the things she enjoys most about her job is that the students majoring in English Language and Linguistics at NUS are all extremely enthusiastic about the study of language and are eager to participate in research and learn more about the field.
Like every other field, however, linguistics does have its challenges. Professor Starr mentioned that, as with most academic disciplines these days, there are fewer permanent and tenure-track academic jobs available in linguistics, and so more graduate students are going into industry jobs instead. As a result, many programs are shifting their focus to better prepare students with the skills needed for non-academic careers.
As for those who worry that a linguistics degree may limit your future career options – fret not. When asked, Professor Starr responded that there are a wide range of jobs available to linguistics students. These include teaching, translation/interpretation, speech and language therapy, information technology, data science, and other fields.
We would once again like to thank Professor Starr for all her help and for devoting precious time to participating in this interview, as well as for her appearance at our annual Making Your Choice! Webinar as our Guest of Honour. The interview was an extremely enriching and educational experience, and I hope that this blog post has done it justice – hopefully, all of us have brought back a new piece of valuable information about linguistics.