A Conversation with Russell Schuh
Professor Schuh thinks of teaching linguistics and doing descriptive, comparative, and historical work on African languages as hobbies. His hobbies and multimedia go hand in hand.
On the web
"Nothing is more fun than doing my job," says Russell Schuh. A professor at UCLA since 1975, Schuh gets paid for doing his hobbies: teaching linguistics and doing descriptive, comparative, and historical work on African languages. His specialty is the West Branch of the Chadic family of languages from northern Nigeria, including Hausa, the largest natively-spoken language in sub-Saharan Africa. After over 30 years of teaching classes and traveling back and forth between Africa and Los Angeles for his research, Schuh has no intention of giving up his hobby.
Schuh first developed an interest in African languages through his work in the Peace Corps. After receiving his BA in French from the University of Oregon, finishing his MA from Northwestern in the same field, and attending UC Berkeley to do graduate work in Linguistics, Schuh spent two years working to increase adult literacy in the Niger Republic. There, he applied his work in linguistics to both the Hausa and Tamazhaq languages. In the mid-1970s, Schuh returned to Nigeria for two years to conduct research with the Center for Nigerian Languages.
Schuh uses multimedia demonstrations of his own research data to teach his students. In his office, a small fleet of laptops rests among an eclectic array of books and woven baskets. "Language is about people talking...it grabs your attention so much more to see somebody actually saying things than to see it written down on a piece of paper in black and white," he says. In 1996, he helped create footage of semi-controlled every day exchanges in Nigeria that is used to teach beginning-level Hausa. In his linguistics classes, he uses video clips of speakers of a variety of languages, for example, speakers of related languages counting 1-10 to show how languages can be similar and different at the same time and speakers illustrating how languages differ in the ways they put sentences together.
It's not that he's an audiovisual entertainment buff. "I haven't watched television or a movie in years," he says, "and I don't ever expect to do either again." But Schuh's hobbies and multimedia go hand in hand. An avid runner, Schuh displays a slideshow documenting his marathon experiences on his website. His interest in music is no different; the long-time clarinet player and member of a Balkan music ensemble offers web surfers pictures and a sound clip of Bulgarian music.
And Schuh has no intention of giving up his hobbies, linguistics and African languages included. Recent years have found him flying off to northern Nigeria to do a project on six area languages. "My future plans have to do with what I want to do [before] the time I either die or retire," he says.
Published: Monday, March 03, 2008