I use some of the following description for grant applications and bios. It’s a solid long-form description of my interests and the story of my recent past and research.
How did I get here?
I did not always know that I wanted to be an anthropologist. It took me a long time to figure out, but it started with puzzles. I love solving complex puzzles. Growing up, I wanted to be a software engineer and solve puzzles with code. I taught myself how to write programs at a young age. I have been programming every day since. Language is another kind of puzzle that I love. In high school, I took a Latin course that taught me about the origin of many modern English words. I was fascinated by how the etymologies of various words explain how they are used today. In my third year of high school, I traveled to Guangxi. I loved the food there. I learned the words for my favorite dishes so that I could ask for them again. This experience inspired me to take my first Mandarin course. My teacher, Ms. Qin, was strict on tones and pronunciation. The learning curve was steep, and her rigor has served me well. I discovered the beautiful compositional nature of Chinese characters and phrases. That’s when I knew that I wanted to study linguistics.
What is my experience so far?
In 2016, I enrolled at Northeastern University with a major in computer science and a minor in linguistics. During my first two years, I worked on freelance software projects. After that, I did two six-month internships at software companies. I gained a lot of experience in software engineering and I bring this technical expertise to all of my work. At the same time, I trained extensively in linguistic analysis through in-depth coursework and research. In the spring of 2019, I wrote a term paper surveying the structure of the Central Tibetan language. Throughout my research, I came to understand some of the struggles that the people of Tibet face. China has a vague policy of “bilingual education” in designated “minority areas” of the state. This allows state-backed leaders in Tibet to conduct most education beyond primary school in Mandarin, despite nearly every student’s first language being Tibetan. This significantly raises the barrier to entry for secondary and tertiary education. This convinced me that language studies cannot be separated from history and society.
Since January 2020, I have worked with the Digital Archive of American Indian Languages Preservation and Perseverance (DAILP) at Northeastern University. Our goal is to preserve stories, letters, and governance documents written in the Cherokee script. We make these texts available online to help Cherokee people tell their stories and teach their language. Cherokee is an indigenous North American language in the Iroquoian family, spoken primarily in Oklahoma and North Carolina. I was trained to read the unique Cherokee writing system to analyze historical texts. With the help of translators, dictionaries, and grammars, we break down each word into its smallest units of meaning. My combination of experience in both linguistics and software engineering has been very valuable for the project. I built and maintain DAILP’s online platform for speakers and community members to explore historical manuscripts. We have been able to quickly iterate based on community feedback. This year, the DAILP team is collaborating with Cherokee students and teachers to integrate with their curricula and gather previously forgotten words.
While digging through documents from the past two centuries, I learned how certain language documentation practices can be suppressive. For example, some people are inevitably excluded when a “standard spelling” is chosen. I have been unable to identify certain Cherokee words in a text because they are spelled differently than the “standard form”. If we prefer one spelling over the other, then we are choosing which traditions carry on. This power is often in the hands of academics that don’t speak the language, who make choices that affect what cultures are preserved. Another example is that colonial ideas of language are often inextricably tied to religious practice. The Bible is one of the oldest and longest texts written in Cherokee because Christian colonists brought writing to North America. This means that Christianity was the first path to literacy for Cherokee people. Even today, the Bible is commonly used as reading material for students learning Cherokee. What might students be reading if the colonists had valued Cherokee stories instead of only their own? Finally, there is ongoing tension between archivists, linguists, and the Cherokee Nation. The Smithsonian collection of Cherokee healer recipes has a particularly murky history. Archivists and linguists want to study the documents, but the Nation believes that healer recipes are sacred and should not be openly accessible. My work with DAILP exposed me to these complex issues that I want to explore further.
In the fall of 2020, I took a course called /Human-Computer Interaction/. The class focused on human-centered design methods through ethnography, interviews, and usability tests. Many of these methods have roots in anthropological fieldwork. This was an inspiring experience, because I was able to tackle the challenge of intuitive software design by collaborating with users to identify their needs and challenges. With DAILP, I conduct structured sessions where Cherokee teachers shape our future work and evaluate the tools that we have built so far. Community-centered design is now one of my core values.
My studies so far have focused on analytical methods, which are often quite abstract. In the field of linguistics, the most common framework is Generative Theory. Generative linguistic theory likens the human brain to a computer and focuses on abstract analyses of language phenomena. It ignores cultural context and how speakers conceptualize their own language. This mindset has prevailed in linguistics for the past seventy years, but the youngest generation of American linguists is slowly challenging generative theory. There is no single way that language works for everyone on the planet, and cognitive models differ across cultures and societies. The process of change in the field is slow. Theoretical linguistics is still more abstract than I would like my work to be. I am drawn to anthropology, which refocuses people and self-representation in the study of cultural practices. I want to push myself to learn about specific histories, cultures, and ways of making cultural study a collaborative process. My short-term goal is to develop a robust people-first approach to research on language and culture.
I want to understand how individuals fit into layered multi-cultural societies and what tools communities need to be represented. My long-term goal is to work collaboratively with low-resource and indigenous communities to develop tools for language documentation, pedagogy, and preservation. It is extremely important to center the community of study as collaborators in design and research processes. My training in engineering, linguistics, and cultural anthropology will prepare me for such applied community research. It will also prepare me for a future doctoral program.