By Jonathan Soder, Features Editor
As a young woman, assistant professor of English and TESOL Jessica Rohr developed a curiosity about the way her brain worked to use two language systems.
Growing up in Brazil as a child of missionary parents, Rohr learned to speak, think and operate in both English and Portuguese. As an undergraduate at Baptist Bible College, Rohr discovered a passion for the field of linguistics while studying under linguistics professor Dr. Greg Christopher.
Linguistics is the study of language and its building blocks – sound rules, structures and meaning. More than just the vehicle which carried Rohr to OBU after her Ph.D., linguistics is also the ever-present structure Rohr sees under all of society’s interactions. In her TESOL specific classes, linguistics has practical applications for all of Rohr’s students.
“I want to teach my students, who are going to become language teachers themselves, to understand their own language well enough to be able to convey it to their students in a way that makes sense,” Rohr said.
“If you want to teach English, then you definitely want to know how English works on all levels, from its smallest sounds to how we actually use it in society, so that you can teach your students not just what the ‘rules’ are, but why and how those rules work.”
On the other side of the coin, linguistics plays an equally important role in literature classes.
“If you are studying medieval literature, for instance, it might help you to know something of the history of how old English changed and developed into the English we would recognize today,” Rohr said. “A class in historical linguistics could tell you that.”
One well-established theory of literary criticism is called structuralism, and it relies directly upon linguistics to analyze the structure of an author’s language and conveyance of meaning within the work.
“A structuralist view of literary text would start by asking what are the most basic units, the ‘atoms,’ of a text,” author Mary Klages writes in her book “Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed.”
“Well, a literary text, like any other kind of written text, is made of language, so a structuralist analysis of literature would start with a structural examination of language itself.”
One author that Rohr said she enjoys specifically because of his linguistic creativity is Salman Rushdie. In particular, she mentioned his book “Luka and the Fire of Life.”
“It has some of that really neat lyrical language…” Rohr said. “He’s a fascinating writer from that perspective, and that’s actually one of the things I appreciate most… I love stories, and I like stories that are well-told. I like stories that transmit the good, the true and the beautiful – all of those things that we value – but I also really appreciate an interesting voice.”
Linguistic analysis doesn’t only apply to English. As Rohr said, her interest in linguistics stemmed from a broader interest in how her mind worked in two languages. Dr. Charles Swadley, an associate professor of English and Spanish, also utilizes linguistic practices for both languages.
“I took [the linguistics class] over 10 to 12 years ago…” Swadley said. “I really like it. It’s really fun, and it’s helped me teach grammar better.”
Under the umbrella of linguistics are many sub-disciplines including phonology (the study of the sounds in a language), semantics (the study of meaning within language) and syntax (the study of a language’s structure). In a world where elements of language are constantly shifting, Rohr has learned tactics to keep up with linguistic trends and changes.
“I work with the people who are on the cutting edge of language,” Rohr said. “So, the people who are on the cutting edge of language are young people. The people who change the language are people ages 24 and younger. They are the ones who are constantly innovating with language. They’re making new words and using new words.
“This new generation of students is doing even cooler things with language because they’re basically reinventing the written system through what we do with text.”
Underneath this, Rohr said, there are constants. Not every aspect of language can be changed. Grammar, syntax and other structural elements tend to remain static. However, the ever-changing vernacular landscape gives a vibrancy to language which Rohr sees through linguistics.
“Studying linguistics affects the way you see the world,” Rohr said. “It helps you to see language as a living entity that’s constantly changing, and to approach everyday language questions with excitement and curiosity.”
One faulty perception of many Americans that Rohr points to is the idea that there is only one right way to use the English language.
Instead, she says there are languages specific to each community a person is a part of. For example, there is a specific vernacular one uses at home with family and another one used at school. School English or academic English is that flavor which is hailed as the “proper” form of English.
“The way that my colleagues here in the English department and I like to think about it is, when you come to be a writing class, we’re not asking you to stop being yourself and only speak this way,” Rohr said.
“We’re just saying, ‘Hey look, this thing that we’re all working on, this academic thing that we all have to know how to speak, is kind of like another language that we’re all taking on. We’re all taking this one so that we can communicate in the same way.’ But that language that you speak at home, that’s good, too.”
This diverse use of the English language is more than a topic for Ph.D. study or classroom talk for Dr. Rohr. It also informs her faith.
“By studying language, I get to appreciate the amazing creativity and diversity of the mind of God, and His graciousness in designing our minds to connect with Him in and through language,” Rohr said.