About the LSA Member Spotlight

Originally created in 2011 and now making its debut on the new LSA website, the LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month.  If you would like to be featured in a Member Spotlight, or would like to recommend someone else to be featured, please contact David Robinson, the LSA's Director of Membership and Meetings.

Click here to see previous Member Spotlights.

December 2013:  Michael Erard (Author, Journalist, Linguist)

Michael Erard has been writing about linguists and linguistics for over a decade in magazines, newspapers, and two books aimed at general readers. He is the author of Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, and Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners, which has been translated into three languages and won the 2013 Maine Literary Award for Nonfiction.

He is also launching Schwa Fire (www.schwa-fire.com), a digital publication about language and life which will publish long-form journalism about speech, language, and communication in the modern world.

Q:  When did you first join the LSA?

I first joined as a graduate student in the mid-1990’s and have been an on-and-off member over the years.

Q:  Can you briefly describe your involvement with the LSA during the time you’ve been a member?

The LSA has been very interested in figuring out how to publicize the work of its members and trying to make the field generally more accessible to the public, so it’s around that issue that I’ve been most engaged with the LSA. I put together a panel on linguists and the media for one annual conference and have also served as an adviser to the public relations committee. I also spend a lot of time talking to LSA members about their work, and I’m very grateful for this generosity, because in many ways, the best parts of my linguistics education has happened through these conversations.

Q: What in your opinion is the most important service the LSA provides to its members?  

Obviously, one important function of the LSA is to serve as a gathering point for different subfields, but a very important and related function is to help everyone better prepare for circumstances that are now just beyond the horizon but which will eventually impact research and funding, teaching, publishing, and/or ethical matters. I’m thinking specifically of the changes in academic publishing as well as changes in the job market, as well as ways that linguistics is relevant in the public domain.  

Q. What projects are you working on right now?  

The biggest project is Schwa Fire. It’s a great time for stories about language because there’s so much out there and people are interested in it. Yet “language” as a topic is sectioned up along professional boundaries and academic disciplines, which has created a number of effective trade journals and entertaining blogs but no single outlet where someone might go to find a story about, say, spelling bees, but written in a way that brings out the linguistic inflections in the topic and so expands the story. Regardless of your professional bent, I want you to be able to go to Schwa Fire and know that there’s going to be something good there, in the same way that a baseball fan can pick up Sports Illustrated and still find a story about Tiger Woods worth their time and attention because the story is about broader athletic themes. I won’t go into a critique of journalism here, except to point out that there’s a huge opportunity to increase the public’s fluency about language matters and connect linguistics with other language-related endeavors.

Schwa Fire will be innovative in many other ways. Stories will be in text or multimedia, depending on the topic – we will be able to do stories about sign language, for instance. The publication will be only digital, which keeps production costs low; it also means you’ll be able to read it on any digital device. Eventually, one story from each issue will be translated out of English into another language, and articles will be bundled for people teaching Linguistics 101-type courses who want well-done, language-focused reading material for students.

Other than that, I’m working on a series of articles about names and naming practices in various sub-cultures (rock musicians, bartenders, Maine lobstermen), and I continue to be interested in metaphors as communications interventions. In my career, I’ve oscillated between language as a content and linguistics as a methodology; for the past couple of years, I’ve been working mainly as a social scientist doing think tank work, and now I’m cycling back to getting at language via the tools of narrative non-fiction and publishing.