DUSTIN CHACÓN is a cheerful red-haired guy, the son of Tony and Jodie, born in the Central Valley of California, raised in Rapid City, South Dakota, by his mother. A linguistics major, he's a senior majoring in linguistics, due to graduate in May. He's been accepted for grad school at University of Southern California and the University of Maryland and hasn't decided between them.
Dustin Chacón (second from right) and fellow scholarship students with Raja Davasish Roy (center), king of the Chakma tribe, at the royal palace in Rangamati, Bangladesh.
Photo courtesy Dustin Chacón.
"I had an enjoyable time growing up a geek in Rapid City. We geeks drove around a lot and went to Walmart late at night, hung around, talked, and visited the all-night Safeway. And then they put in a Borders bookstore and that was a hot spot for the geeks. When I was 12, I saw a book in a bookstore, Learning Japanese, and I just decided I wanted to do it. I read all the books I could find, listened to tapes, and one day I went to a Japanese restaurant and spoke to the people behind the counter. They thought it was cute.
"In high school I had a friend who was second-generation Bangladeshi and I heard her talk in Bengali and it sounded musical, rhythmic. She taught me a little, and I ordered some books. Now it's one of my primary research interests, the structure of Bengali. I know Bengali speakers and they laugh when I speak Bengali to them--it's their family language and they're surprised that a white guy with red hair speaks it. It's impossible to extract a language from its cultural context, and I knew nothing about South Asia, but I've learned something about it since.
"I took four years of German in high school and borrowed a French textbook and tested into fourth-year French. I took three years of Hindi at the U, because the pop culture of South Asia is Hindi, but I haven't used my Hindi all that much.
"I think facility for language is just a matter of how much you enjoy it. It's a hobby of mine. When I started learning Japanese, it was like an abstract puzzle, but now that I'm studying the science of language, I am interested in the cognitive limitations of language and what languages have in common. The underlying blueprint.
"I took a psychology course in high school that mentioned Noam Chomsky and his theory of universal language and that got my interest. I read Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct, which turned out to be the text for introductory linguistics, all about the cognitive mechanisms of language. A fascinating book. I recommend it to everybody.
"As a freshman, I took Introduction to Linguistics, a class of 30 or so. I didn't know
a lot about what linguistics was but I fell in love with it. There was something elegant about describing language, which we do unself-consciously everyday, something so essential to being human.
"I've done a little work on the structure of Bengali and I'm also interested in psycho-linguistics and how the brain processes language, how neural disorders--Alzheimer's --affect language use, as the disease progresses, and in the long run to use these signs as a diagnostic tool, a predictor.
"Linguistics is a small program at the U, maybe 60 majors, maybe 20 grad students, and there are a lot of social activities. Linguistics Happy Hour and Linguistics Lunch, where the conversations are rarely about linguistics --we're all friends together--and it's been important to me to have this social contact and have friendships with professors and other students, so you're not just another face in a large program. I work hard and my rule is to have a sabbath, one day a week when I lie around and watch TV and eat bad food and decompress. Usually it's Saturday or Sunday. I do video games like Megamen or movies, horror or horror comedies, which are usually pretty horrible, or Bollywood.
"I spent this last summer, from June to early August, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on a State Department scholarship, and improved my Bengali massively. There were 15 of us Americans, and it was fantastic. We spent some time in the eastern part of the country, near the Burmese border, and lived with the Chakma tribe in a village of modern frame houses with thatched roofs, in the hills, surrounded by fields on slopes, and met with their king, a tall, slender man in his late 30s, English-educated, a lawyer in a suit, and we sat in his parlor and had tea and cookies. He was very personable. He talked about his people and his family and his life in London. Friendly chatter."
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