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In love with languages

By Yang Yang | China Daily | Updated: 2018-11-23 07:35
Hu Xuhui (right) and his classmates while pursuing his second PhD in linguistics at Cambridge. [Photo provided to China Daily]

A keen student of linguistics has just had his first work published by Oxford University Press, Yang Yang reports.

When Hu Xuhui went from China to the University of York in Britain to pursue the master's degree in linguistics in 2006, he was upset to find that he had to study the difficult theories of US linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, which he had been influenced to "oppose" to throughout his domestic linguistic education.

However, after half-a-year's hard work, Hu's interest in language, nurtured when he was a boy, was revitalized by Chomsky's theories.

Born in Yixing, Jiangsu province-south of the Yangtze River-in 1981, Hu grew up in a family in which his mother and father spoke different varieties of the Wu dialect but could understand each other.

"My native tongue is Yixing dialect, but my mother speaks Liyang dialect," he says.

Young Xuhui naturally noticed the systematic differences between the two dialects, and tried to sum up their counterparts in pronunciation.

"I noticed that a certain speech sound in Yixing dialect corresponds to a definite speech sound in Liyang dialect," he says.

When he started learning the English language in middle school, he was intrigued by the differences between Chinese and English.

"For example, in English, you would say, 'There are two kids in the room.' But in Chinese we use, 'The room has two kids' in terms of the sequence of the words," he says.

Although he had long been aware of the differences, it did not mean that he could do related research until he had studied linguistics.

"I found I could use the theories I studied to explain the differences between Chinese and English. Although it might not be right, I was exploring an unknown area of linguistics, which gave me a very satisfying sense of achievement," he says. "It was a very important turning point of my life."

Hu wrote a term paper based on his findings, which was highly regarded by the professor, who awarded it with the highest grade of the whole department-88 points out of 100.

"At York, 70 means distinction, so 88 is really high. That's another very important turning point of my life. It was a huge encouragement for me to continue my research," he says.

After earning a PhD in linguistics from Nanjing University in 2010, Hu landed a job at Shanghai International Studies University as a lecturer. In 2011, he went to Cambridge to continue his studies, completing his second PhD around four years later. Since 2015, Hu has been teaching linguistics at Peking University.

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