2018 Grant Award: Daniel Zahn

I came to college with a major in mind and a path thought out. Linguistics did not originally have a place on that path. When I thought of syntax, I restricted it to literary analysis. When I thought of language, I drew images of foreign-language study. I never thought that I would spend weeks doing linguistic research in Benin and then two months studying French in France.

The experience started in January with the class LING 497: Languages in Africa. A survey course, we spent weeks on each region and language family in Africa. We learned about the history of both local languages there and colonial languages that have invaded regions. The class prepared us for the trip to follow: a two-week research trip to Benin, a country in West Africa. I thought I prepared well. The professor taught the class well, and she held extra meetings outside of the course for students going on the research trip. But after the class ended and we landed in Cotonou, the cultural capital of Benin, the real learning started.

Being in Benin opened my eyes to so many things and for multiple different reasons. The most jarring was the history of slavery. Benin was a capital for the slave trade. We walked along the path that slaves were led down, past trees and structures that the enslaved people also saw. We heard stories of death and degradation. People endured hardship and hell. At the end of the path stood the Gates of No Return, a structure now but a symbolic place back then. The beach looks out to the Atlantic Ocean. Any slave on a ship that sailed out of that beach would never step foot on African soil again, if they were able to step foot on any soil again.

Beyond the dark history caused by the slave trade, I also saw so much brightness. The tradition clothes that a lot of Beninese people wear involve bright colors and playful patterns. Benin also originated voodoo, and we were able to see ceremonies and statues in the city of Ouidah. But the village of Bassila, located toward the middle of Benin, brought the most brightness. There we conducted the research and helped film the Anii language and traditions. The research focused on linguistic contexts and language use. I worked with two students. Joseph and Elsy, to learn about which language they knew, how they acquired languages, and when they used what languages. They both knew over six languages and frequently used multiple different ones for school, home, friends, church, and the market. The Anii traditions included basket weaving and ancient children games.

After my incredible experience in Benin, I went straight to France where I spent two months taking language courses at the Centre de linguistique appliquée (Center for Applied Linguistics). I not only loved learning the language more, but I also took classes with students from all over the world. (My Russian classmates were ecstatic when I started reading Crime and Punishment.) The only way to communicate with many of my classmates was in French. The program also took us on cultural outings each Wednesday and also organized weekend trips. Independently, I experienced Prague, Vienna, Budapest, and Amsterdam. The summer granted me the ability to see so many different cultures and societies.

PLA did so much more than financially aid me. It prepared me to confront new and uncomfortable situations and ideas. Being exposed to so many people in PLA with different backgrounds and perspectives aided in working with people abroad—who lead lives so different from my own.