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  • Writer's pictureSam Needleman

Peter the Polyglot

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

With the approval of the Linguistics major, a sophomore rejoices.

By Sam Needleman

When Peter Gado, CC ‘22, applied to Columbia, he had two fields of study in mind: linguistics and international relations. The fact that neither major existed here is a testament to Gado’s peculiar blend of optimism and denialism; the fact that he knows, some two years later, that he can now pursue both interests is a testament to his mental tenacity.

The latter discipline, of course, was easier to mold: political science students can specialize in international relations. But the linguistics major was discontinued in 1983, and until last month, the only academic measure to sate polyglots was a special concentration—a minor-like entity that, unlike other concentrations, must be partnered with another field of study to meet graduation requirements.

But on October 10, the Spectator reported that the New York State Department of Education had approved the linguistics major, and that students could declare beginning this semester. Gado was not involved in the approval process, but those of us with well-endowed, dependable departments must applaud his perseverance in the face of academic dreams routinely deferred.

Gado grew up bilingual, speaking English and Spanish, with family members who spoke French, German, and Arabic. He recounted the ways in which his daily interlocutors’ idiosyncrasies fascinate him. Recently, he said, he heard his South Carolinian step-father say, “We used to fax, but anymore we just email.” The example prompted him to ruminate gracefully, if unintelligibly, on morphological contrast.

We were tucked away in a stairwell in Journalism. I had asked Gado to meet after noting his palpable passion in Contemporary Civilization, where he regularly shoots his hand into the air and gingerly resolves would-be aporias about textual translations. In a recent class, he questioned our professor’s assertion that Spanish conquistadors read the Requerimiento in Latin.

Illustration by Rea Rustagi

“I’m always thinking of the context of my sentence and the context of my ideas,” Gado told me. “I feel like I can’t just put words together anymore.”

Requirements for the linguistics major include Introduction to Linguistics; Phonetics and Phonology, as well as Syntax; and interdisciplinary choices like Structure of Hungarian—Gado has checked that box already—and Language Crossing in Latinx Cultural Production. Students also study languages from scratch; Gado is currently in his second semester of Japanese.

The linguistics program is interdisciplinary, so its professors are drawn from a variety of departments. Luminaries of the affiliated faculty include Akeel Bilgrami of Philosophy and Julia Hirschberg of Computer Science. Even the Director of Undergraduate Studies, Meredith Landman, is housed in Slavic Languages, and Program Director John Mcwhorter, who teaches the famous intro class, works in English and Comparative Literature. Gado looks forward to pursuing research opportunities with at least one of these thinkers.

Though Gado is considering concentrations in economics and art history, his central academic interest has been clear for some time. Asked to decode his love for linguistics, he paused for the first time since we sat down—indeed, for the first time since I had met him. “My friend said to me the other day—she’s like, ‘You know, I don’t think I’ve ever had a single conversation with you that language hasn’t come up.’ What makes linguistics special is that’s what we do all day. We talk.”


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