"New sun, new air, new sky. A whole universe teeming with life. Why stand still when there's all that life out there?" -The Doctor
"Asking a linguist how many languages they speak is like asking a doctor how many diseases they have." -Unknown

Friday, February 3, 2012


I used to live in a house up on a hill overlooking a valley floodplain. Some mornings, when the conditions were just right, we'd wake up to find our house drenched in sunshine and the valley below filled to the brim with fluffy white clouds, as if it had snowed overnight and had filled the lowest-lying areas with ten-storey drifts. On our way into town, we'd start out in light and warmth and inevitably descend into cold grey mist, and it was hard to believe that just a little ways above us the clouds ended and the sky began.
If you'll excuse the painfully obvious analogy, I can't help but wonder if this is an image of what our exchange students go through--or any experience, for that matter, be it concert, rally, summer camp, or exchange program, when you step away from your normal life and see everything in simplified terms. The muddle and habit of everyday life is stripped away and the road to take is so well-defined and obvious that it seems absurd to think you ever did it any other way. You feel resolved, determined, transformed, empowered to change your life--to find God, to lose weight, to make a difference in the world, to change your habits, to break out of the rut you've been trundling along in for months or years. You take a deep breath and set your feet on that road and...you find yourself back in your old life. Suddenly the way is confused and less clearly defined; all those confounding factors that seemed so trivial above the clouds loom large again in the mist. It's not as easy as you thought, and you settle back in the rut again.
I've experienced this mountaintop-to-valley process myself many times; it seems that every first taste of success is flavored with this laughably oversimplified crystalline clarity. Maybe others have the willpower to push through the haze and focus on that vision glimpsed from a faraway peak, but for the most part I don't.
The other day in computer lab, I was chatting with one of our exchange students from Japan. She's been a ray of sunshine all five months, the very incarnation of genki: full of energy and enthusiasm with a huge smile ready to break out at any second. She's in our mid-level class, but should have been in the lower. She's progressed hugely over the months, in large part because of joining the tennis team here and participating in practice sessions and tournaments. Tennis has been a huge part of her life for a long time, so I was pretty surprised when she told me that she didn't want to play tennis anymore when she went back to Japan. Why? Her experience in America taught her that there was more to life than tennis; that was a choice made for her by other people, and she wanted to make her own choices and try something different.
All those are admirable goals: try something new, take control of your life, break away from the way things have been. But already, the mist is creeping in; she also said that she received a reply from her tennis sempai telling her that she couldn't quit the tennis team because she's already been scheduled to play doubles. She is energetic, friendly, enthusiastic, yes, but she also told me that she goes where others tell her, that other people (her parents, her tennis coach) have dictated her steps for a long time. She's even attending her current university, and therefore here with us, because her tennis coach told her it was a good place to play tennis--so she went. It's terrible, but I can't help but wonder: with such a fun-loving, amiable disposition, how long will it take the combined pressure of habit and duty and parental/peer expectation to put her right back where she was before? The difference would be, she wouldn't want to be there anymore. I really hope this doesn't happen, but I don't know if she has the strength and support to fight it.
I guess the question is: is it possible to hold on to that mountaintop vision and make it real? More fundamentally, can people change their lives? I think they can, but it will never quite match that hopeful glimpse in the clear air; real life is always more complicated. "It's much easier to change your tune when your song ain't being played," as Earthsuit sings. Now that our exchange program is coming to an end, our students will have to reenter their old, normal lives, departing with promises made with the best of intentions to write and call and visit again and practice English, most of which are never fulfilled. The familiar tune is too overpowering, and they end up marching to the beat again, almost without realizing it. As usual, as ever, life just gets in the way.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Why Edinburgh?

On Tuesday I was chatting with a coworker about work as I opened my email and I swear my heart stopped for a moment when I saw the message from the University of Edinburgh. Once I was alone, I opened it. "Dear Jennifer," it began, "I can confirm that your application to study MSc Psychology of Language at the University of Edinburgh has been accepted unconditionally, congratulations!" To be honest, I didn't feel excited or even happy. I just sat there with tears on my cheeks as the reality of it hit me.

Ever since I finished my applications on New Year's Day in this very chair--and long before that too, as I thought about where to go and wondered where my life would take me--I've felt like a skydiver falling through thick fog. I knew that eventually and inevitably I would land somewhere, but the aimless drifting in the greyness, the terrible anticipation of waiting to hit the ground, was nerve-wracking. It's a relief to have landed, to have some control over the situation, but the monumental task of pushing forward looms before me now. I guess it really hit me what grad school in Edinburgh would mean: finding funding, moving to Scotland, getting a visa, working toward a Ph.D. That all went from being a nice, safe daydream to a rock-hard and unexpectedly painful reality.

In order for me to organize my thoughts and answer some questions, I'm going to list below the pros and cons of going to Edinburgh. At the moment, it's the only confirmed choice; the other four schools (Stanford, Berkeley, Wisconsin-Madison and MIT) have yet to respond. But despite the difficulties that lie along the road to Edinburgh, it's still my first choice, and I can't even imagine a situation in which I would choose one of the others over it. Here's why:

Geography: Pros
Let's get the obvious out of the way first...
Edinburgh is in Europe(ish). I say "ish" because the residents of the British Isles don't actually seem to consider themselves "European", but for geographically, there's no denying it. Living in Europe is a huge plus for me; the flavour of life (I swear that "u" was unintentional) is more enjoyable for me living over there. Also, I'd be much closer to my European friends (see "Travel", below).
Edinburgh is in Britain (for now at least!). I have wanted to live in Britain for years now. I love the people and the country and the food (why hasn't clotted cream become a thing over here yet?!) and the dialects and the television programming and everything. I don't see any better time to live there than now, especially when I have a good excuse for the visa application.
Edinburgh is in Scotland. It's the capital, actually. Although my visit to Scotland two years ago was brief and mostly consisted of visiting Edinburgh, I really enjoyed my time there and I would love to travel further north. Also, Edinburgh is in south Scotland; I'm only two hours from Newcastle and three from Northallerton, and being close to Bethany is very important!
Edinburgh has mountains (well, hills) and sea. I discovered after living in a sort of rolly green country hours away from any significantly sized body of water that both mountains and sea are in my blood as a native Washingtonian, and being close to both is important to me.

Geography: Cons
Edinburgh is in Britain/Scotland. Located even farther north than Germany, which is definitely north of here, I'd expect cold weather and very dark and gloomy winters.
Edinburgh is not in America. This puts me a transatlantic and transcontinental flight away from my home, my family, many of my friends, and my dog. Although I could return for visits, it would be expensive and exhausting. Which leads me to...

Travel: Pros
Travel is so important to me; it's one of the great joys of my life and a major factor in this choice, so it's great that...
There is so much to see. I spent the summer two years ago wandering around Britain (you can read about it starting here if you're interested) and I wasn't anywhere close to being satisfied with how much I got to see. I can't explain why I love it so much there but being close to so many fascinating places would be a huge blessing.
Edinburgh is a major Ryanair hub. You must know how much I love Ryanair. Flights from Edinburgh go direct all over Europe, from Finland and Estonia to Portugal and Italy. Now, I don't know how much spare time I would have for traveling, but who wouldn't want to go to Estonia for a weekend? Or Denmark? Or Portugal?
The British have trains. I know they whine and complain about National Rail, but I'm sure not going to. It's better than taking my life into my own hands driving on the wrong side of the road! It'd be possible to travel around Scotland and England pretty easily--a lot more convenient than everything-is-forever-away America.

Travel: Cons
Edinburgh is in Europe. Not only do I have to get myself there, I have to move as well. My possessions mostly consist of clothes, books, a guitar, and my computer, but all that stuff takes up lots of suitcases. Going home for visits would be an expensive undertaking involving ten-hour flights and eight hours' worth of jet lag.
Ryanair has no direct flight from Edinburgh to London. I thought they did and I'm so sad to discover otherwise. It makes no sense to me because I'd want to visit London all the time, so surely don't others?

Finances: Pros
Tuition is cheap. Right, so, "cheap" is an extremely relative term; its use here means "about $26,000 a year." Yeah, so not objectively cheap unless you're talking about moon rockets or Bugatti Veyrons--or tuition at, say, Berkeley, which is $64,000 a year. From a comparative perspective with the other schools I've applied to, Edinburgh is downright reasonable.

Finances: Cons
Edinburgh has not offered me any funding. This is the single biggest obstacle that's keeping me from accepting the offer of admission on the spot. At the moment, I would have to pay that $26,000 a year out of pocket, and my pockets are nowhere near that deep. I'm looking now into scholarships and filling out the FAFSA, but the offer includes no funding offer whatsoever. In contrast, if I get admissions offers from any of the other schools, I will pretty much be guaranteed at least some funding. My ability to pay for the education may end up being the deciding factor, even if my heart and academic interests point down another road.
Britain is frakking expensive. Accomodation, for instance--just glancing through this site, it looks like £400-£500 a month is to be expected. Still, that's pounds--the exchange rate is currently 0.6369 dollars to the pound--ouch. Then there's insurance and fees and books and food and transportation and clothes and furniture and postage and who knows what else, and I'll be in over my head pretty fast.

Academics: Pros
Edinburgh is a Russell Group school. The Russell Group is the British Ivy League. Edinburgh is a world-renowned, high-quality educational institution, which makes for a very shiny doctorate.
Edinburgh has exactly the program and major I want. I've been accepted into the MSc for Psychology of Language, which is the first step on the way to a four-year Ph.D. in psycholinguistics. This program could not be more perfect for me or more in line with my interests in bilingualism, language learning and processing, cognition, and memory. Every time I read the website I just get more excited. Speaking of which...
The faculty have been amazing so far. I've communicated with two, one of which (Dr. Branigan) took the time to write long, thoughtful, personal emails to me helping me develop my ideas and giving me pointers about my application. The other stopped responding after a bit--I assume he's been busy--but his initial responses were welcoming, friendly, and very enthusiastic. All contact I've had with faculty at other schools has been lukewarm at best; the general impression has been, "Well, I guess you can apply if you have to, but you probably won't get in." My experience with Edinburgh has been, "You sound awesome! Come study with us, we'd love to have you!" Now, which one would you choose?
Edinburgh is a major site of synaesthesia studies. Synaesthesia (a psychological condition where a stimulus in one modality, such as hearing sounds, triggers a certain response in another, such as seeing light or tasting flavors) is a huge interest of mine, as I am mildly synaesthetic myself. Serious research into synaesthesia is being done at Edinburgh, and its researchers are leaders in the field. They study synaesthesia to illuminate more about the processes of language in the mind, and I can't think of anything I'd rather study.
Geoffrey Pullum teaches at Edinburgh. Okay, allow me a bit of linguisticky geekiness here. Pullum is a frequent contributor on Language Log, a witty and knowledgeable linguist, and a slanderer and libeler of Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style," all of which make him pretty dang awesome. When I visited Edinburgh, I really wanted to meet him, but he was out for the summer (understandably) so I didn't get the chance. If I go there, I'm going to go shake his hand and then pitch him a job for myself as volunteer worker at Language Log Plaza. I'll let you know how it goes.

Academics: Cons
Edinburgh is not an American school. I was surprised to learn that this is actually a concern for some of my professors, who have advised me to attend an American school. They say the academics are more rigorous and therefore the degree more prestigious. I can't imagine that for a well-known, highly regarded university, simply not being located in the U.S. could be a major problem, but it is something to look into.

Culture and Society: Pros
Edinburgh is fascinating. There are theaters, festivals (the Fringe, obviously, but others as well), museums, castles, wilderness, shops, restaurants--everything you could want in a city. And it's friendly and enjoyable place to be, at least based on my experience last time.
I'm a foreigner. This could easily be a con, too, but I like being a foreigner because 1) I have an excuse when I do something stupid and 2) it makes me more interesting. Being a foreigner is an open invitation for a local to show you the ropes.

Culture and Society: Cons
I don't know anyone in Edinburgh (and I suck at making friends). The latter is evidenced by the fact that I've been living in Bellingham for months and have actually decreased my number of friends (since Dani left) by about a quarter. I don't imagine I'll spontaneously sprout the ability to be friendly and gregarious just because I'm in Edinburgh! I guess I'll have to give it a shot, though.

Well, it's late now and I haven't done the work I was planning to do, silly me. I'll have to add anything I've forgotten later. I just want this so bad and I want it to work and I'm not sure it will. I know if I don't go to Edinburgh, I will regret it. I just hope I won't regret it if I do.