I became a linguist because I was rather obnoxious and rebellious.
I grew up in a little town in upstate New York where no languages were taught before high school. In ninth grade I enrolled in my first language class: French. But after about two weeks, the teacher was clearly fed up with having one student wave her hand in response to every single question. I was handed a pile of books and cassette tapes, pointed in the direction of the janitor’s closet, and told to go work on my own. By June when I emerged from that closet, I had completed all the assignments and tests from all four years of high school French. I was told: “Ok, you’re done with language for high school.” But I didn’t listen. The following fall I signed up for Spanish. And the same thing happened. At the end of tenth grade I was told: “Now that’s really enough, we don’t have any more languages to offer, go do something else.”
Two years later I was signing up for courses as a Princeton freshman, selecting biology, calculus, and the like, since my parents had told me that there was no way they were paying for a university education unless I became a doctor. There was a language requirement, and that made me unsure of what to do. I didn’t want to go back to French and Spanish, since my “closet studies” were but a distant memory by then and probably inadequate to get me beyond a beginner course. I could try something different. Chinese? No, that conflicted with the pre-med courses my parents demanded. An advisor solved my dilemma by enrolling me in Russian.
I did fine in the pre-med courses, but various factors led me to opt out of med school. At Princeton in the mid-seventies there were mighty few female students in the science and math courses, both the students and the professors made me feel unwelcome, and there weren’t even any women’s bathrooms in those buildings. Worst of all, the attitude toward learning in the pre-med courses wasn’t as important as grades. I remember a calculus mid-term that was 14 pages long. I took the test and left the room, noting that it was odd that almost everyone else was still sitting there. I had a nearly perfect score on the test – all I missed was a single minus sign – but I got a B- because it was graded on a curve and all those Princeton pre-meds had recognized that the test was too easy, so they all sat there and checked their tests over and over to make sure they got As. I said to myself: “I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life with these people.”
Russian was exotic and challenging and there were even some female instructors and (fellow?) students. But the biggest attraction for me was Professor Charles E. Townsend, a pupil of Roman Jakobson and a legendary figure in the classroom. The high expectations he set for his classes were only surpassed by the demands he made on himself and his unflagging devotion to his students. Charlie Townsend volunteered to teach me Czech in my senior year and also stood up to my father, defending my right to pursue linguistics. After that I went on to graduate school at UCLA and various adventures behind the Iron Curtain that no reasonable parents would have allowed their daughter to undertake in those days. In the course of my career I have had lots of fun with lots of languages and language students. But I can still be rather obnoxious and rebellious at times.