Americans who encounter spoken and written English at every turn can often take the power of language for granted. Even linguistics majors.
Elizabeth “Liz” Kujath, who graduated from Mizzou in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in linguistics, studied abroad in Tanzania on a Boren Scholarship during her junior year.
She was studying Swahili, the dominant language in East Africa, to aid her ability to do linguistic research there. The 15-year-old boy who lived with her homestay family, however, had grown up speaking Dholuo, with his mother. But those language skills — and his connection to his childhood and his mother — were fading.
Kujath asked if he’d like to speak Dholuo with her. He agreed. After school, he would speak simple words like “cat” and “dog.” She recorded it on her computer and, thinking nothing of it, played it back for him.
His eyes lit up. It was the first time he’d heard a recording of his language before.
“I never saw a kid get so excited about something I didn’t think he would get excited about at all,” Kujath says.
Since then, Kujath has applied for the Marshall Scholarship and a Fulbright U.S. Student grant and accepted the 2021 Mark Twain Fellowship to study documentary linguistics at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, one of the top linguistics universities in the world. She plans to follow that with a doctoral degree.
On challenging days, that memory still motivates her pursuit of documentational linguistics, which is the description of a language’s usage and grammar and the creation of a verbal and written record of it for the community.
“It’s representation,” Kujath says, “and documentation that they exist and are valid. Their language is valid.”