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Illustration and words by Yasodara Puhule-Gamayalage

It’s not everyday, that one gets the opportunity to ask a linguist about his or her inspirations. Hence of course, when one does, one must seize it.

After speaking to Professor Nick Enfield about his current projects, he was glad to let me know a bit about the beginning of his journey.

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Yasodara Puhule-Gamayalage: What inspired you to become a linguist?

Professor Nick Enfield: You’re not the first person to ask me this; so I’ve thought about it.

I guess there’d be three things that really led me to do linguistics.

One is that my grandfather was into language, just as a thing to do in his later life. So he studied German and Japanese. Lived in Maroubra; you know, just sort of a Sydney-city public servant. I never really knew him that well because he died when I was quite young but he had all these sorts of language books. So in a sense I’d sort of seen that learning language was something that kept you thinking and fascinated.

The second one is that my uncle was an English language teacher and he had a pioneering English language school in Sydney in the 70s and 80s which got quite big. When I’d visit him I’d constantly be encountering people from diverse countries who were coming to Sydney to learn English. There were all sorts of different languages being spoken in his house. There were artefacts on the walls from different places around the world and that got me interested in human diversity.

The third thing that I credit for getting me interested in the diversity of cultures, languages and societies around the world is Tintin. When I was a little kid, we had all the titles of the Tintin comic book series and every one of them is based in a different country and cultural setting. Tintin was travelling to all these amazing places. One moment, he’d be in China. The next he’d be in South America. Then he’d be in Eastern Europe. It was just so much adventure.

It really inspired me to want to travel. So all those things led to me to travelling the world as a backpacker.
I saw a lot and experienced a lot. It set a lot of my coordinates for what kinds of things I wanted to do.

Yasodara P.: So, what made you particularly interested in Lao?

Prof. Enfield: To tell you the story of how I got into Lao, would take a very long time. But, for something to do on my travels, I learnt the local languages. A lot of places, I wasn’t there for too long. So I’d only learn to count to ten and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you!’

But I spent quite a lot of time in Thailand. I was there with a friend. We were doing bicycle tours and that sort of thing. And we made a lot of progress with the language.

I looked over the river to Laos; it was a time when it was still rather difficult to travel to Laos. It was closed politically and that made me all the more fascinated to go there. Thai and Lao are very closely related languages, so when I’d finished travelling I started at university and did a degree in Asian Studies at the ANU.

They had a program, which was to spend a year in Asia, and I said, well, I could go to Thailand but I’d rather do something a bit more unique. So in the middle of my undergraduate studies, I spent a year and a half in Laos and studied the language.

I got deeply into the culture and everything sort of led from there.


Of course, I could not help but ask Professor Enfield to bust a long-hackneyed myth about career linguists, namely, that they are people who speak many languages.

Prof. Enfield: Well, if you were to test different people of different professions on how many languages they speak, it may be that linguists might score a little bit higher simply because they tend to want to learn about other languages or they might study other languages in the course of their work. But in general, it’s a complete myth.

But the word linguist has two central meanings. One is, someone who has a degree and is a professional practitioner of the academic discipline of linguistics. That person may or may not know a lot of languages. Plenty of linguists don’t know more than one language. The other sense of the word is associated with a job in the military; it’s someone who can intercept documents or work in the field and do translations. They are two completely different meanings.


Thank you very much, Professor Enfield.

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