Carrie Gillon: Linguistics Research Assistant

Carrie Gillon is a linguistics research assistant from Phoenix, AZ. She dissects languages to discover how they're used and learned. 

What do you do?

I take language apart and put it back together again to see which parts are necessary and which parts are strictly speaking unnecessary. Linguistics is the scientific study of language, and I use science to discover how language is put together and how children learn language rules.

Why is your area of study important? 

My work shows that indigenous languages have complex grammar, just like any other language. Linguistics more generally also shows us that all languages and dialects have value, and that linguistic discrimination is just as bad (and often a proxy for) other types of discrimination.

What is the coolest thing you've done as a linguist? 

My TEDx talk might be the coolest thing, but the second coolest/geekiest is teaching a class on constructed languages. Constructed languages are fun to create, and they also help us understand natural language better.

What's your favorite STEM fact?

Tiny areas of the brain (Wernicke's and Broca's) are responsible for a lot of language understanding and production. Sign languages and spoken languages also use both areas.

Sometimes we see linguistics portrayed in film. What's your take on that?

Arrival is a movie about aliens (“heptapods”) and a linguist who tries to figure out their language. In so doing, she gains a superpower (the ability to see the future). It’s basically taking the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the idea that language determines thought) to its logical conclusion. As a linguist, I think the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is bunk, because the strong hypothesis (that we can only think about things our language encodes) is easily debunked and the weak hypothesis (that language influences our thought) is obvious and boring, but it’s an interesting idea (and somehow more palatable because it involves aliens). The short story by Ted Chiang (“The Story of Your Life”) even connects this to physics (Fermat’s theorem) and is incredible. Everyone should read it.

What do you wish to share about your field? 

Misconception: linguistics is about telling people how to speak. No. We study how people speak. And we are trying to figure out what the mechanisms are that allow us to speak. I've also been to the Canadian Arctic (Tuktoyaktuk) to collect language data, which was fun and slightly terrifying for a 22 year old. :)

Thanks for your amazing work in linguistics! If you’d like to nominate a STEM friend (or yourself), fill out the AweSTEM people form. You’ll also receive jewelry from Circuit Breaker Labs.