Featured Linguist: João Costa
Becoming a linguist was partly a matter of chance (or luck!) partly genuine interest. As a junior high school student, I was convinced I wanted to become a teacher. I guess I wanted to be a teacher of French, sometimes an elementary school teacher. High school changed things, and as I turned 16 my interests started fluctuating (almost weekly). I started considering many possible paths: journalism (because I had a radio show with friends at the time), philosophy (because epistemology was my favorite topic), classical languages (I was in love with Latin and Greek), theatre (because I was playing theatre with an amateur group, and asked by a professional group to join them)… too many options, and I had to make a choice. At some point, I had to choose between becoming an elementary school teacher, studying language and literature, or a new undergraduate program at the University of Lisbon: a program in Linguistics. I’m a literature freak, a compulsive reader, but I never liked reading literary critics. I couldn’t picture myself in that world. So, I was left with two choices. I found the structure of the new degree quite interesting, although I had no clue about what formal linguistics was about. I saw that there were courses in cognitive psychology, mathematical methods in linguistics, sociolinguistics, and I found it a perfect cocktail! But still I couldn’t make up my mind… So, I flipped a coin, and the choice of the coin was Linguistics! I’m sorry I didn’t keep that coin as a little treasure.
Studying at the University of Lisbon was great, and I soon realized that Generative Grammar was the theory that provided clearer answers, falsifiable hypotheses and with the best prospects for useful usage in several applied domains. In the first years, I pictured myself as a phonetician for the rest of my life. But a class on unaccusatives by Inês Duarte made me fall in love with syntax. Groningen, as an Erasmus student, and the classes with Jan Koster helped me make the final decision: I wanted to be a syntactician. Adverbs and word order were the puzzles I wanted to work on.
Life as a graduate student is always perfect, and my life in Leiden, with an intermediate eight months visit at MIT, constituted the perfect setting me for me to seriously learn how to study, how to discuss what I study, how to argue. Some people say I am workaholic (as anyone with an addiction I don’t acknowledge that…), but if there is any truth in that, the bad habits started in The Netherlands.
Back in Portugal, my interest moved to Language Acquisition and Language Impairment, realizing that language acquisition could only be done with proper theoretical knowledge, and that theoretical syntax may benefit a lot from findings on language acquisition. Right now, my life as a linguist is temporarily suspended, because I am in the Portuguese Government, as Secretary of State for Education). My work on language acquisition has led me to work on education matters, and to play a role in society. That’s actually what I think science is for – to create a better world.
Many, many people have influenced me, but I cannot help mentioning one of the most influential linguists, since we first talked: Tanya Reinhart!
If I cannot imagine my life without many linguists, I am also sure that linguistics could not be the same without the LINGUIST List!
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