We are pleased to feature this week’s linguist, Professor Jason Rothman! Read his linguistics journey below!
I have always loved language. I wanted to be a linguist before I really knew what linguistics was. Like many, I originally thought that being a linguist meant a perpetual life of learning language after language. So dedicated was I to that romantic notion as a teenager that I forged parental consent at the age of 17 to get a tattoo on my inner right ankle. Supposedly it said “linguistics” in Mandarin characters. I have since found out that what is actually there is, well, close enough! It is a good thing that becoming a linguist has worked out, since tattoos are permanent. In many ways, I was utterly naïve about what a linguist studies. Of course, there are many types of linguists and many complimentary questions related to language worthy of scientific investigation. But, in hindsight, I was not really aware then of even the essential elements that transcend paradigms and, we would agree (I hope) make us linguists. I suppose the path that brought me in my youth to dedicate myself to linguistics is not terribly different from many: a deep fascination with language coupled with a nerdy desire to understand the dynamic, essential characteristic of this mundane property that defines us as humans, yet is mostly taken for granted.
My real linguistic journey began in earnest in my late teens, when I moved from a suburb of New York City to the remote lands of farm-country New York state. 5 hours from my people-packed home environment, in what appeared to me to be the middle of nowhere, stood a shining and ‘gorges’ beacon of scholarship and architectural beauty (Ithaca is famous for its gorges and, thus, the saying Ithaca is gorges instead of gorgeous). My first proper linguistics course was, Introduction to Linguistics taught by Professor Wayne Harbert. He was so passionate and such a good teacher, but it is, nevertheless, fair to say that my romantic notion of what linguistics is was shattered. It was hard. It was serious. It was a science! I began to think that maybe this tattoo was going to need a cover-up. I am not sure that laser technology to remove tattoos existed in the mid 1990s, so I was even more determined to keep at it. After the initial shocks of phonetics and phonology—the first part of the course as I recall—my introduction to syntax assured me I was on the right path. I stopped designing the cover-up tattoo somewhere around Halloween of that first semester. At Cornell, I was able to study linguistics but also Romance languages in all their glory. While I had wonderful professors in cultural studies and literature as well, these courses further hammered home that my love of language would best be served with a linguistic perspective.
In 1999, I moved to Los Angeles to start a MA/PHD at UCLA. During the MA portion, I studied most closely with the late Professor Claudia Parodi and Prof. Carlos Quicoli. Although we were focused on Romance languages, particularly Spanish and Portuguese, we were taught to use them as tools to understand language in general. Accurate description of these languages was important, but not enough. Somewhat differently from my undergraduate degree training, sophisticated description was not the end goal. Professors Parodi and Quicoli taught me what I know of formal syntactic theory and in doing so they instilled in me the importance of approaching language in a truly scientific manner. Today I would describe myself as a formal psycholinguist passionately interested in, if not obsessed with, how the mind represents and processes language(s). But at this time, I had not yet discovered the full joys of language acquisition and processing. The formative years of my MA studies, however, paved the way. I recall thinking: How could these complex systems possibly come to be acquired? If language was as complex as I was studying, how does the child get (much of) this in her head even before she fully develops domain-general cognition and is able to do other demanding cognitive tasks like math? How do bilingual children do this for multiple languages? How do adults do this and why—at what levels—are they different in acquiring these systems?
In 2001, I took my first bona-fide course on general acquisition theory with Professor Nina Hyams. I could not have imagined then how a single course would change the path of my career trajectory and thinking. I found it. I loved syntactic theory. I was seemingly good at it. However, it was not completely satisfying for me devoid of experimentation probing the development of these complex systems. At the time, experimental syntax as we know it in recent years largely did not exist. I had been working on null arguments in Spanish and Portuguese at the time. I recall learning in Nina’s class about the well-known Delay in Principle B effect in child language—when children of certain languages until late (age 5 or so) can violate Principle B of the Binding Theory. At the time, one proposal regarding why this is seen in some languages and not others related to whether the language syntactically licensed null arguments (subjects). It was fascinating. I was hooked. I wrote my first paper related to how studying Brazilian Portuguese, a language believed to be in a diachronic shift from a null subject to a non-null subject language, children could help adjudicate between theoretical proposals. I found a way to combine my love for language in general and my skills in and penchant for the precision of formal linguistic theory to a domain where theories can be tested directly. I never looked back.
The next year, also in a course Nina teaches on bilingualism and second language acquisition, I was first introduced to two other amazing role models that would forever change my thinking. By this time, I had already decided that I would do my PhD work in acquisition but I was still unsure in what populations. Nina is not a specialist in bilingualism. And so, although skype did not exist at the time, she supplemented this course with lectures via video-conferencing and/or live performances. One such lecture was by Professor Bonnie Schwartz who talked to us about her then new model related to child L2 acquisition. Another was by Professor Maria (Masha) Polinsky on heritage language bilingualism. Both are now dear friends and colleagues. I am not sure they will even recall the questions I asked in those lectures, having given that specific lecture or, if so, that I was even there, but their talks left such an impression on me. By the end of this term, I knew that I would work on bilingualism. That was not necessarily a wise idea or an easy path because UCLA does not have an emphasis on this, at least from a formal linguistic perspective, but I was determined. And Nina was very inspirational, motivating and supportive. Between her and Carlos Quicoli and very generous people in the field who helped along the way, I was able to put together a decent dissertation project and learn so much.
I was very fortunate to get a job immediately after graduating—this was 2005 when such things were more possible. My first one was at the University of Iowa where, among many other great friends and colleagues, I was very fortunate to fall under the wing of a proverbial giant who seemed to believe in me more I did myself. If you know me now, you might not believe it but I was then a (more) quiet person who was not so confident in his abilities. Professor Roumyana Slabakova was the most supportive mentor any new assistant professor could ask for. She forced me, in ways she knows and for things she did consciously and in ways she does not know because it was simply her presence and her excellence, to believe in myself and that together we could train a proverbial army to ask and answer important questions. Together we started the journal Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism (this year finishing its 10th year in production), built the first lab I (co)-directed and mentored many wonderful PhD students who are now leading changes in our field. In 2010, I moved to the University of Florida where I was able to mentor another cohort of truly exceptional students and grow in my research base. It was there that my bug for psycholinguistic methods first took hold, not the least due to my wonderful colleagues working with online measures. It was also there that my concern for incorporating input quality in formal linguistic theories related to the development and ultimate attainment of bilingualism, especially heritage language bilingualism, was solidified.
In 2013, I took a full professorship in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading, in the UK. At the time, the Centre for Literacy and Multilingualism (CeLM) was being formed and I was one of the new hires for the center. Reading has been very formative, not the least due to being in a Psychology department. I made a conscious effort to learn about, expand into and invest in online processing methodologies and the connections between language and cognition (especially in bilingualism) more generally. I was able to found the University of Reading Psycho-and Neurolinguistics lab, co-directing it with Dr. Ian Cunnings. Using behavioral experimentation, eye-tracking, EEG/ERP and even (f)MRI we have been able to inject formal linguistic insights into studying how the mind and brain adapt to bilingualism as well as combine formal linguistic theory questions into modern psycholinguistics where this has been rarely done for heritage language bilingualism and adult additive multilingualism.
As I write this, I am in the process of moving full time to UiT The Arctic University of Norway, where since 2014 I have been in a 20% Adjunct Professor position in the Language Acquisition, Variation and Attrition (LAVA) research group and the NTNU/UiT joint Acquisition, Variation and Attrition (AcqVA) group. At UiT, we will inaugurate the Pyscholinguistics of Language Representation (PoLaR) lab which will bring EEG/ERP to language research above the Arctic Circle. In September, I will begin a 4-year research project funded by the Tromsø Forskiningsstiftelse (TFS) entitled Heritage Language Proficiency in their Native Grammar (HeLPiNG). This roughly 3-million-Euro grant will employ several post-doctoral scholars as well as fractional professorships through 2023. While I will miss my Reading family terribly, I am very excited to join full-time what is one of the best epicenters of linguistics anywhere in the world, not only the incredible cluster of linguists in LAVA and AcqVA but across several other world-leading research groups in various domains of linguistics housed at UiT, Center of Advanced Studies in Theoretical Linguistics (CASTL) and Cognitive Linguistics: Empirical Approaches Russian (CLEAR) .
As is likely true of most, many accidents, a lot of luck, passion and endurance has brought me to where I am today. I have been fortunate to work with the most talented group of young scholars over the past 14 years. My students and postdocs have inspired and challenged me more than anyone else and remind me that while I am a professor, I am also a student at the same time. This year marks 20 years since I began graduate school and while there have been many ups and downs, I feel privileged to have done so much more than I ever thought possible when I first moved to Los Angeles from Ithaca. So many people have supported me along the way, whatever I have accomplished is a testament to all that you have contributed. You know who you are, so thank you. A quarter century has passed since I got that linguistics tattoo. While it’s a little faded on the surface its longevity and symbolism are real, inspiring and enduring.