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Despite the humanities-centric nature of my schedule this semester, I still had to fill a portion of my overall science/math requirements, in the hopes of, you know, graduating.While we don’t have core requirements in the way of specific classes here at Hopkins, we do have them in terms of overall distribution. The science/math related ones fall under the big umbrella of NQE, which stand for Natural Science, Quantitative Science, and Engineering, respectively. Do these titles make me a little nervous? In keeping with the brutal honesty of this blog, I have to say: yes. I took one look at them as a pre-frosh and maybe turned on some pre-Viva La Vida Coldplay and breathed in and out a few times. Now, approximately halfway through my first semester of sophomore year and through my NQE credits, I can safely say that, as a Writing Seminars major with science class stage fright,  tackling the distribution requirements here is a more manageable — and dare I say, interesting — task than I first envisioned, partially thanks to the unexpectedly cool (and very difficult, but again, cool) linguistics class I’m taking right now.

Language and Mind is technically a beginner level linguistics class, cross-listed under both the Cognitive Science and Psychology departments. To save myself from ever having to walk into a lab and mix things in a beaker ever again (too many high school lab catastrophes to mention here), I tend to veer towards these types of NQE’s. In addition to this, and if I’m keeping with the brutally honest theme here, they tend to have some degree of overlap with what I’m learning in my other classes. For example, learning to write well and analyzing good writing both inevitably veer into conversations about human psychology and nuances — nuances in the people being written about, in the ways your own narrative tends to form, and ultimately, in reconciling the two in a well-developed piece of prose, fiction, journalism, etc. Finding this point of intersection (if it exists) and making the most of it often helps to keep me focused on work that, again, while very interesting, also has its moments of intellectual swampiness that I don’t feel like dealing with, but ultimately have to.

But back to Language and Mind. I signed up for the class because of its intriguing yet tame description: “Introductory course dealing with theory, methods, and current research topics in the study of language as a component of the mind. What it is to “know” a language: components of linguistic knowledge (phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics) and the course of language acquisition. How linguistic knowledge is put to use: language and the brain and linguistic processing in various domains. This course is restricted to freshmen and sophomores.” Key phrases: introductory course, what it is to ‘know’ a language, restricted to freshmen and sophomores.

The first few classes required mostly reading-based homework and discussion, which was great. A very odd, very obscure part of me really loves to have a gargantuan text in front of me and take lengthy notes (maybe because I love the feeling of pen to paper? will investigate this and update you in future blog posts), and doing so in this class was and still is an integral way for me to fully process the complex range of information we’re learning. However, within approximately two weeks of the first lecture, the professor said the compound word “problem sets” for the first time, and my stomach may or may not have done a poorly-executed somersault. I could easily have keeled over and remained in fetal position (maybe physically, maybe metaphorically, maybe both) at this point, but with hopes of maintaining a strong GPA this semester for study abroad application in the spring and a little bit of “gumption”, I decided to stay in the class and see what was good.

While there have been trying times, I’m glad to say that the decision was a good one. I’ve learned to transcribe English words phonetically, the phonemic knowledge behind the phonetics (aka the psychology behind the way we speak — you guys, there is more than one way that we actually pronounce the letter ‘t’…just gonna leave that there), the morphological structure of words, and, by far the most complex section which we’ve just completed, syntax. Some of my favorite portions of the class have been about linguistic theory, a lot of which is devoted to the fact that newborn babies and young children have this inexplicable aptitude for language acquisition and phoneme distinguishing across languages that older humans just don’t.

The great linguistic minds of the world still haven’t figured out how this phenomenon works or why it exists, but they affectionately refer to it as innate knowledge and The Paradox of Language Acquisition. Children don’t fully learn a language by being taught; rather, they have this subconscious way of figuring certain things out, a “mental grammar” that they can create for themselves based on whatever language(s) they’re learning. That grammar stays with them into adulthood and continuously shapes, but it is in its most malleable and powerful form when they’re in the ‘universal listener’ stage, which ends after the first year of life.

The interesting aspects of the class are definitely counterbalanced by more technical, application based learning that has required a very specific mixture of repetition, good study music, and focus to master. Still, despite my initial fears about said learning, the challenge has been an unexpectedly good test of my work ethic and ability to prioritize, to keep the end goals in mind and not just let my aversion to science-related academics be an excuse for mediocre work. And, like I said way before, there are some genuinely fascinating theories out there about the way we learn language and some genuinely crazy facts about how many layers there are to one word, one phrase, one sentence. As a Writing Sems major who manipulates and analyzes language on a daily basis (and as a low-key logophile), knowing the science behind language gives what I do a new spin as well, a new awareness of the true power of language, as cheesy as that sounds. In sum, Language and Mind has made the distribution requirement feel like less of tedious load and more of a way to keep my education at Hopkins truly well-rounded, in a way that’s simultaneously manageable and meaningful.