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Thoughts on structure: An interview with Leslie Lee

by on November 14, 2014

Kevin Martens Wong speaks with the newest faculty member at the Department of English Language at the National University of Singapore, Leslie Lee.


How and when did you discover you had an interest in linguistics?

It was quite accidental really. I had actually applied to FASS (the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at NUS) determined to study Economics. Then I took the EL exposure module and fell in love with the formal study of language as a system. But looking back, I think I’ve always had an interest in thinking about language structure. I remember playing language games as a child. For example, I would switch out vowels in words and ask my mother if the ‘new’ word existed. In other words, I was looking for minimal pairs, haha!

What made you decide to pursue a PhD in linguistics?

I don’t really have a good excuse for this either. I was in my honours year, and I still didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduation (side note to students: start thinking early!). Since I was having fun with linguistics and seemed to be doing okay with it, I thought it would be a good idea to go on to graduate school, and avoid the real world altogether! I was able to do this because I had written my honours thesis in my third year, and could use it as a writing sample when I applied for graduate school in my fourth year.

Why morphosyntax and semantics?

For me, these were the aspects of language structure that were the easiest to make sense of, at least at the beginning. I used to think that phonology was boring, because it’s not associated with any meaning! But I have since learnt to appreciate the P-side as well.

How are morphosyntax and semantics relevant in today’s world?

They help structure our thoughts and the expression of our thoughts. Not just in today’s world, but in any human world. We wouldn’t have come so far as a species if we only knew how to produce sounds, but didn’t attach structured meaning to those sounds.

Why Thai?

I learnt Thai as an undergraduate in NUS (by the way, NUS has the biggest and most successful Thai language programme in the world). I was initially interested in it because I thought it sounded very melodic, as though the speakers are constantly singing. This, of course, has to do with the fact that Thai, like many Chinese languages, is a tonal language. The ‘singing’ effect was lost, however, once I learnt the language and understood what was being said—speech ceased to be interpreted as mere sound. But by that time, I was having too much fun analysing the language structure!

What was the hardest part about being a graduate/PhD student?

I don’t think there is one thing that I can single out as being ‘the hardest part’, but I must say that there’s a lot to get used to when one is making the transition from an undergraduate to becoming a graduate student. The focus shifts dramatically away from coursework-based study of the ‘received wisdom’, towards reading the primary literature (read: messy) and conducting first-hand research that engages with the current literature in a meaningful way. That’s when you start to realise that things aren’t as neat and crisp as your teachers had taught you, and you have to learn how to deal with that.

What about your job do you enjoy most?

Teaching and interacting with students! I get a very rewarding feeling when students enjoy the class and, more importantly, benefit from what I teach and how I teach it.

What are some perceptions of linguistics you’ve encountered, and would like to see changed?

I think one of the most dangerous views, which actually is very commonly propagated in universities across the world, either deliberately or unconsciously, is that there is one dominant and/or correct framework and/or methodology for analysing language. It is important to remember that frameworks and methodologies are created by people, and different groups of scholars have different interests in terms of the aspect of language that they are interested in addressing, as well as the assumptions that they make about language. So, one should always try to be tolerant of differing views, and if possible, see if there’s anything that can be learnt from a different analytical perspective. (The same prolly [sic] applies to life in general.)

A pet peeve you have about any aspect of language use.

Improper subject-verb agreement. I mean, there isn’t even that much agreement in English to begin with, so there’s really no excuse, I think.

A language you’d like to learn someday, and why.

A signed language. Because I have terrible hand-eye coordination and I love a challenge! There’s actually a lot of mental rotation involved when using and interpreting signed language as well, which is prolly [sic] good exercise for the brain.

How has linguistics changed you as a person?

It has prolly [sic] heightened my awareness of language use, both my own as well as that of others.

What advice would you give to someone hoping to enter the field?

Not sure what ‘entering the field’ means here. If it means learning linguistics, my advice is this: what are you waiting for?!

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