Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the 2018 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending their summer. You can read the entire series here.

This entry is by Esther Yoshiko Liu, GSE ’19

With my goal of becoming a university-based Language Policy & Planning expert, I arranged my unpaid mid-Master’s program internship at the Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research at University of Western Cape this past summer. Through my Research Fellows position there, enabled by generous Penn Career Services funding, I built an experiential base from which to discern whether and where to pursue doctoral studies.

In South Africa, I tried on the linguistic anthropologist’s hat for fit – an awkward, floppy hat by design. Channeling Hortense Powdermaker, diving into the process of inscribing community contexts and the full humanity of others, discovering how culture shock and difference are the heart and soul of my field; these tasks of suspending my own norms to subject myself to others’ constraints, and immersing myself as deeply, widely, and openly as possible in human interactions and communicative events were rehumanizing and restorative. They strengthened my intercultural agility and built confidence that I am well wired for this line of work. Through engaging with Southern theory I grew in understanding of my own University’s place of power and privilege, which granted perspective and conviction on how to steward these well through my own academic pursuits.

I collaborated with global leaders in the field of Language Policy & Planning, notably, through working at the 20th International Congress of Linguists. There at my first major academic conference, I was surprised by the approachability of the top scholars (whom I’d previously encountered only by way of footnotes), how invested they were in encouraging graduate students and young/beginning researchers, how they embodied the professional values to which I aspire. I was entrusted with mentoring undergrads and Master’s students in ethnographic field methods, and appreciated “interning” in the fullest sense: My supervisors treated me like a colleague, and gave me concrete opportunities to be (as if) one of them.

I evaluated pious ambitions of South Africa’s multilingual language policy, which grants 11 previously stratified languages equal constitutional footing against the actual implementation of these policies on the ground in creches, colleges, and communities. Outside of 9-to-5 office hours, I got enveloped into the wide web of Western Cape families, and welcomed into their life events, including weddings, funerals, baby showers, 50th birthday bashes, and more — an anthropologist’s dream! All this occurred in a climate of resource scarcity, as Cape Town is limping out of its recent water crisis, and as the historically disadvantaged university where I was based continues to establish itself as a top research institution in Africa. This context accentuated how language differences are implicated in negotiating access to vital resources, and whose concerns get voiced and heard.

The role of language in political conflict and social inequity is often ignored. But within Educational Linguistics, my division at Penn GSE, we examine how language practices and policies (especially through institutionalized education) can either disrupt or reproduce these economic and educational inequalities. My summer research experience put these processes of interactional sociolinguistics under the microscope, and confirmed my abiding interest in linguistic justice as it relates to diversity and human flourishing. It extended my commitment to work through linguists’ lenses, stewarding the great resources and training at Penn to contribute to illuminating the correlative and causal relationships between social fragmentation and language grievances.

Author: Student Perspective

Views and opinions from current Penn students.

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