How did you discover linguistic anthropology? Why did it attract you?
I kind of sidled into it. The initial interest came from growing up in Montréal in the 60s, when everything in everyday life was about language choice, as part of navigating struggles over social difference and social inequality. Somehow it seemed obvious that all this pain and anger and fear couldn’t actually be about language itself; also, I wanted to understand how it made sense to people to take the very different positions they took, without having to assume anyone was inherently evil or insane. I discovered there was a thing called linguistics because my father, who liked hanging around bookstores, came home one day with a magazine for me that featured a cover story about Chomsky. It took me a while to figure out that generative grammar was not going to give me the tools I needed, but it was really helpful to have to figure out why. By this time, I was in college, and saw that an anthropology professor had put a course on Sociolinguistics on the books.
Back in Montréal, “sociolinguistique” was becoming a thing: it was used by academic researchers to investigate the question of the variability of French (a highly charged question in the context of linguistic minority political mobilization) and government ones to develop and implement language policy as part of the construction of Québec as a francophone quasi- or proto-nation-state (as is common in Canada, the relationship between the two spaces of production of la sociolinguistique was close). Also, my mother had gone back to university to study sociology around then, and sent me off to meet two key people she had met there: Gillian Sankoff, at the Université de Montréal, and Pierre Laporte, at the Office de la langue française.
It wasn’t until I went to grad school that I learned there was a thing called linguistic anthropology; to this day, I’ll use whatever label works. I really only use linguistic anthropology for moving around the United States. But the main lesson I retained from all of this is that there often are tools in unexpected places for addressing questions that are bugging you, so it’s a good idea to keep your eyes open. Also, people are really helpful, so you shouldn’t be afraid to knock on someone’s door, even if you’re some 18 year old whose mother took a lecture course with this person ten years earlier.
Why did you decide to study in the United States? What was that like?