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Reflections on an unpleasant experience

A year has passed since then. One late evening I saw a short post on face book by a young person to the effect that she was going to delete linguists from her face book friends’ list in an hour’s time. She had obtained her PhD degree in linguistics, her research being, I guessed, on some topic in psycholinguistics, from a good university but hadn’t been able to find a job. Not really knowing her (how many face book friends of yours do you really “know“!) I had no idea for how long she had looked for a job. I felt bad and requested her to reconsider her decision. She responded, saying that she was not going to change her mind. She was thoroughly disappointed with our linguistic community. Hope this feeling about the linguists did not carry over to linguistics! In any case, I, being a linguist, felt quite bad about it. It is quite disturbing to see a young linguist feeling so let down by
the linguistic community.

One might argue that she was unfair to have that attitude to the linguistic community. The faculty view is that to expect one’s thesis advisor or the departmental faculty to find suitable placement, which ordinarily means for a PhD degree-holder a teaching position in a university, for their students is not realistic. In this context, Professor Biswamohan Pradhan, the senior linguist says, “why single out linguistics? Isn’t finding a university teaching position difficult in other disciplines as well: history, political science, philosophy, sociology, mathematics, physics, for example?” I agree with him that in the present situation, “do PhD in linguistics and join a university department to teach linguistics” is
an unsustainable proposition. Not every university in our country has a linguistics department. There are more than thirty universities and institutes of higher education (both general and technical) in Odisha but there is a linguistics department in just one of these. It looks like in this land of Panini, Katyayana, Patanjali and Bhartrihari, linguistics has received considerable neglect.

One might argue that she was unfair to have that attitude to the linguistic community. The faculty view is that to expect one’s thesis advisor or the departmental faculty to find suitable placement, which ordinarily means for a PhD degree-holder a teaching position in a university, for their students is not realistic. In this context, Professor Biswamohan Pradhan, the senior linguist says, “why single out linguistics? Isn’t finding a university teaching position difficult in other disciplines as well: history, political science, philosophy, sociology, mathematics, physics, for example?” I agree with him that in the present situation, “do PhD in linguistics and join a university department to teach linguistics” is
an unsustainable proposition. Not every university in our country has a linguistics department. There are more than thirty universities and institutes of higher education (both general and technical) in Odisha but there is a linguistics department in just one of these. It looks like in this land of Panini, Katyayana, Patanjali and Bhartrihari, linguistics has received considerable neglect.

Language technology development, translation, including text-to-speech and speech-to-text machine translation, technical writing, editing, text summarization, lexicography and language teaching among others, provide opportunities to the linguist. For our languages, say, in Odia, we need spell checkers, grammar checkers, style checkers and search engines. There is need to develop the technology that will make possible accessibility to, and exchange of, information on the mobile phones in the user’s own language. As for language teaching, taking Odia as an example, there is the need to create online resources to teach the language to the non-native speakers of Odia, not excluding the foreigners. Now since the policy of imparting technical education at the higher level in our regional languages is being implemented, there has arisen the need for a large number of
competent translators of technical material. For this to happen, translation aids such as bilingual dictionaries and glossaries of technical terms in various domains of knowledge will be needed. For machine translation, computational grammars and dictionaries have to be prepared. All the projects, mentioned above, will require significant input from linguistics.

There is an urgent need for specialized diploma or certificate level courses or even short-term crash courses in linguistics to train students for these careers. Whether the university departments of linguistics will meet the challenge or private institutes will, is a different matter. In our institutes of technology, undergraduates do a course in technical writing and in many of these institutes another course in business communication. Linguists can offer these courses, if their knowledge of English is good. Thus, linguists can teach linguistics and communication, both, which means they can find teaching jobs in both these disciplines. Once NEP 2020 is implemented at the undergraduate level, students, majoring in various subjects, can do one or two courses in linguistics and / or communication as their minor – this, as far as I understand the recommendations of NEP 2020 in this respect. When this happens, the job prospects of linguists will improve dramatically. Once courses in linguistics are offered at the undergraduate level all over the country, one would expect it to be included in the list of subjects for examinations for jobs in Central and State
administration.

Pradhan says that some fifty years ago, many of those who taught Odia also had a degree (Masters) in Sanskrit. Maybe in the present context, teachers of language (English or a regional language) should have a degree (Masters, if not research) in linguistics and teachers of linguistics must likewise have a degree (Masters, if not research) in English (or a regional language). As a consequence, employment opportunities for linguists in translation, communication and editing enterprises, among others, will increase to a considerable extent.To return to the young scholar. Her disappointment has to be respected, irrespective of whether her academic community considers it justified or not. One way of respecting her feelings by the linguistic community is to rethink its syllabus. Maybe it does not relate well to the society’s needs! Maybe there is a need to make the programme more application-oriented. This would help the young linguists to find jobs in the emerging and expanding language-market.

Mainstream linguistics has traditionally has been a great deal more concerned with the structure of language than the use of language – in India, as in the West. Our linguistics syllabus at the Masters level over the years has reflected this orientation. The focus has been on the structure of language at various levels: phonological, morphological and syntactic. Of late, there has been a change in the syllabus, says Aditi Ghosh so as to correct this imbalance; courses on language and communication, language variation, language and society, pragmatics, discourse analysis, translation etc. are now part of the Masters syllabus in her university and in many others too. These courses would enrich
the students’ understanding of his society and its needs, some of which would be language-related. In today’s context, these would include translation, building search engines and language technology tools.

In any case, this rethink on the syllabus is very welcome from another point of view. Humans have used language to talk about the world. And not just that. We have used language to talk about what the world means to us as well. We talk about self and the other, about the way we negotiate with the world and with each other and much else. We have used language to reflect on our use of language. As a result, we have postulated theories of language use. The syllabus must reflect this aspect as well.

On the whole, things look a good deal more promising for the young linguists today than twenty-five years before. There is career choice for the young linguists; he can teach or do a language-related job outside the education sector. With due respect to those who hold different views on the matter and in all humility, I suggest that teaching linguistics at the university is not the only way of serving the interests of linguistics. There are other ways as well.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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