From Digilect to Talkpocalypse: Interview with Ágnes Veszelszki, linguist
This month we are putting Ágnes Veszelszki, a Hungarian linguist with an ever growing international reputation under the spotlight of Vibes Magazine.
We were lucky enough to catch her for an interview between two professional assignments (plus several international conferences and research projects); in the interview she gives us interesting insights concerning her career, her books, the psychological effect of digital communication and other fascinating topics.
VIBES: Let me first of all congratulate you for your third book titled „Netnyelvészet” (Netlinguistics) which has been published earlier this year; the book comes as the latest supplement on top of your countless awards and successful projects. I am fascinated by your achievements. Tell us a bit about how you got started.
ÁGI: Two of my books were published almost at the same time in the summer of 2017. Netlinguistics has been published in Hungarian while Digilect, which is basically an introduction into the internet language, has been published in English. The English volume, released under the title: “Digilect. The Impact of Infocommunication Technology on Language” – which has been adapted to different, more international target audiences was published by the illustrious De Gruyter publishing house.
After graduating from the István Bibó Secondary School in Kiskunhalas (Hungary), I continued my studies of Hungarian and German language and literature at the Faculty of Humanities of Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. This choice wasn’t at all surprising for those who know my family background: my mother used to work as a Hungarian-Russian secondary school teacher and director of the school, while my father was teaching German and Russian.
Unlike the vast majority of students who chose to attend the Hungarian faculty at the university primarily for their passion of literature and only secondly for linguistics – I have always preferred courses in linguistics . Sociolinguistics and grammar classes were my favourites.
My professors, Géza Balázs and Borbála Keszler noticed my enthusiasm and supported me from the very beginning. I wrote my first paper for the OTDK competition (National Conference of Scientific Students’ Associations) on linguistic history with the mentoring of Éva Zsilinszky.
Soon my interest turned towards modern Hungarian language, and my passion was rewarded by a prize-winning OTDK paper. At the same time, I started to attend more and more professional conferences. In addition to my university studies, I also published a book about emoticons together with my co-author, Zoltán Bódi (Hungarian title: Emotikonok). I graduated from Eötvös Loránd University and I stayed there to teach.
VIBES: Currently you are working as an associate professor at Corvinus University of Budapest. How did you become involved in education?
ÁGI: Ever since I reached sixth grade at primary school I knew exactly that I wanted to become a teacher. At the beginning I was only thinking of teaching at secondary school level just like my parents, but I started to hold independent courses at the university already in the third year of my studies.
When I received my Ph.D. degree I was admitted to the Faculty of Humanities at Eötvös Loránd University as lecturer. In 2016, I switched to Corvinus University of Budapest where I work as an associate professor at the Institute of Behavioural Sciences and Communication Theory headed by Professor Petra Aczél.
Teaching is a very important part of my life: apart from working with my students as partners I also learn a lot from them; they give me motivation to keep on searching for change and renewal.
VIBES: What are the best and worst aspects of your job?
ÁGI: I enjoy everything that I have just mentioned before: continuous collaboration with my students (and of course with my colleagues); the fact that I see change, growth and development, sometimes even within a single semester; that during the classes you can have an “Ah-ha” experience; I enjoy witnessing the completion of a thesis by my students and we all share our joy and happiness in the end; as a special bonus, some students whom I trained and prepared for a national competition return home with an award.
Sometimes I receive feedback from my former students: they tell me that they were able to make use of the lessons learned during our joint courses in their jobs or they succeeded in sharing their knowledge with someone.
What I find most complex and time-consuming in my work is the administration that comes with it: not only the students’ performance must be logged very accurately, but our own (scientific and other) results must also be recorded in different systems and platforms. Of course, all of those things are almost irrelevant compared to the joy that teaching and research can give.
VIBES: Which are technologies in your judgement that generated the greatest impact on how we communicate today?
ÁGI: That question is all the more exciting because in the early 2000s, when “texting” (or SMS messaging as it is referred to in Hungary) was rapidly becoming one of the most popular forms of communication, many of us thought that SMS messaging and the abbreviations that came with it would change our communication habits forever.
However, pretty soon after the advent of SMS (or texting, whichever you prefer), our lives were swamped by all the various messenger services, smartphones and the omnipresent and ubiquitous internet. SMS was squeezed into the background together with the majority of the abbreviations that were considered “really creative” back then.
All of those things took place within a period of five or six years therefore it’s extremely difficult to make long-term predictions about digital communication for exactly the same reason.
However, something can already be seen from today’s perspective: the impact of mobile and of course social media, and the particularly strong dominance of Facebook. Just think about it: Facebook is still showing a growing trend with nearly half a million new users registering each day, which means that every six seconds, six new Facebook profiles are created. Currently, more than two billion people are logged on regularly to the site.
This means an unprecedented mass of people (and, of course, power) that has never been experienced before on any platform.
VIBES: What might a typical ‘day in the life’ of a linguist look like?
ÁGI: Luckily, my job is full of variety; I can say that almost every day brings something new, something different. In addition to preparing for my university classes and the actual task of teaching which are obviously fixed programs during the semester – I have various other regular activities including consultations with my students and my doctorates, scientific research, long series of project discussions, study readings, article writing, preparing myself for conferences and for other lectures and the active participation at such events, editing of periodicals and books, presenting them at roundtable discussions, interviews like this one for instance… and I’m often busy with promoting science which I find extremely important.
VIBES: Facebook, Instagram, smartphones and the like have become mainstream. We are liking, LOL-ing, unfriending on a daily basis. We often prefer to send an emoji instead of writing small phrases. What could be the impact of this behaviour on the quality of our communication?
ÁGI: What is obvious: internet has already modified and keeps on modifying the nature, timing, speed, and scope of information gathering. Scientific publication and news reading habits have changed radically. This digital information atmosphere created a new, critical attitude, the necessary (constant and recurrent) verification of the reliability of data received (think about the topic of fake news).
Some people just can’t imagine their lives anymore without internet and many seem to be almost unable to recall how they were thinking before the internet era.
Our perception and acceptance of written information has changed as well: we read a printed book in a totally different way than we would read from the screen or display of a computer which is sometimes also referred to as the “illuminated parchment”. When we are reading an electronic text, we tend to jump more frequently between various information units and we usually look for images and moving images.
Our memory has changed as well: it seems that the position and the particularly important role of factual knowledge have been replaced by the ability of thinking in network and the ability of connecting fragments.
Networking and our 24/7 availability became a phenomenon in our everyday lives impacting our personal and professional social relationships. The transformation of human relations brings with it the blurring of boundaries between professional and private networks. Besides all this, data carriers are also constantly changing, and information becomes more and more immaterial.
Space and time management has been rearranged as well. The 24 hours availability on the world wide web accelerates subjective time. People say that sometimes we need a deliberate slowdown, and more consciousness in experiencing our offline moments.
And while some people are talking about digital or virtual addiction in addition to the almost limitless surfing opportunity, the continuous deep-dive in the information flow; some nostalgic feelings can also be observed which are keep longing for the pre-internet era.
VIBES: Hieroglyphics and emoticons are often compared. Are emojis really dragging us back into the dark ages?
ÁGI: I do not think so. Visualising things and depicting things have always been part of the basic communication of human beings.
In linguistic philosophy people are increasingly talking about the assumption that the current „linguistic turn” (in simplified terms this means that everything is defined by our language) will be followed by a pictorial or iconic turn.
In other words this means that in our present age, images are in the centre of our perception. Just think about the ‘Direct feature’ option on Facebook (live video streaming), about the edited images of Snapchat, about the selfie culture or emojis. According to philosopher Kristóf Nyíri, the presence of (mental) images forms and integral and indispensable part of our thinking.
VIBES: In 2017 when we talk about digital communication it’s impossible not to mention the psychological effect. Extroverts become introverts and introverts turn into extroverts on different digital platforms. According to a recent infographic we spend more than 2 hours per day on different social media platforms on average. What is your personal opinion? Could it be that our digital habits are shaping the creatures that we are all becoming through our digital diet?
ÁGI: There are more and more transformations of the famous Descartes aphorism (Cogito ergo sum. – I think; therefore I am.- Vibes) : ‘I share therefore I am’, ’I like therefore I am’…Well, this might express the self-centeredness of the present era (see selfie, iPhone, iPad).
I have a twenty-year old university student, who admittedly and deliberately does not use a smartphone: “I have a ten-year-old traditional cell phone with no internet, but I can still get by without any problem. Usually I’m surfing on the Internet on the desktop computer, and when I quit, it means that I’ve stopped doing that activity, so I am not carrying the internet with me, nor do I let it follow me anywhere. ”
Being constantly on the (mobile) phone gives us a chance to step out from our actual physical space, and for that reason the use of mobile phones (in particular in company) might often be interpreted as a reaction to a non-comfortable situation, boredom or longing.
We can observe the same phenomenon whilst travelling on public transport: fiddling with the phone (surfing, playing, talking etc..) , enables us to exclude the environment that surrounds us (excluding also the other passengers).
Apart from the self-exclusion and self-distancing the use of mobile phones has other functions as well while waiting or while travelling: it can help passing time and combat boredom, it’s a kind of displacement activity.
Mobile phones and other gadgets are obviously satisfying our communication needs as well (according to addicts one must always be present, not to be left out of anything, cf. nomo-phobia, no mobile phobia) and they can also be considered as multimedia centres.
What we still need to get used to is the voice-based human-machine communication: more and more devices (such as Siri or Amazon Echo) work with voice control. We give the instructions to these machines with our voices, not manually (through keystrokes or touchscreens). Researchers are already talking about a so-called “talkpocalypse”.
This raises even more the issue of privacy, since not only official and private conversations, but commands given to the machine can also be overheard by others who are close by; even more, commands could be heard, intercepted or wiretapped by practically anyone.
Not only the phenomenon of using mobile phones during a conversation requires new rules of courtesy; the handling of other people’s conversations is crying out for a new code of conduct. How many times are we forced to be involved involuntarily in other’s intimate conversations?! …
VIBES: What advice would you give someone who is considering doing a degree in linguistics or trying to get a job with such a degree already in his pocket? Any advice for young researchers?
ÁGI: There are several directions for graduates of linguistic studies: either they get a job in a research institute and deal exclusively with research, or they may combine scientific research work at the university campus with education; they may also work with applied linguistics and, for example, find their place in the business sector (let’s just think about machine – human communication where translation software also requires linguistic knowledge).
I would like to give two pieces of good advice (not only for linguists): find the topic you like the most and become an expert in it; but stay flexible, always be ready for change, for the discovery of new things, and expand the professional field in which you feel at home.
VIBES: Where can Vibes readers reach you?
ÁGI: I’m available through various platforms on the web. My personal website is basically functioning like a professional blog (http://www.veszelszki.hu), my LinkedIn serves as a professional curriculum, I am also managing several Facebook accounts (more related to our topic: Netszótár, A világhálóba keveredett ember, Borkommunikáció ) furthermore I’m also the administrator of the official Facebook group of the cKIM workshop (aka Communication: Internet and Media) which is dealing with the linguistic and social aspects of digital communication.
VIBES: Thank you Ági! 🙂