Harold Torrence, associate professor of linguistics in the UCLA College, became enamored of linguistics as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia.

“I actually started off being interested in literature, but then I had professors who would say things that would sound crazy to me, such as, ‘Oh, this word in Spanish is related to this Russian word,’” Torrence said. “I had no concept of languages being related like that. Over time, I became more interested in the structure of language itself, rather than studying the literature side of things.”

Torrence, who is a specialist in the West African language of Wolof (spoken mostly in Sénégal and The Gambia), as well as the Mesoamerican languages of Mixtec and Kaqchikel, wants his students to see the study of language and linguistics as a way to gain deeper insights into culture and history.

“It's interesting how such complex knowledge could be so below the surface of consciousness,” Torrence said. As a linguist, “what you really study are products of the human mind. Language is almost always a proxy for things like ethnicity, race, social class, etc.”

One of Torrence’s first forays into African languages was taking a class in Yoruba — a language spoken in Nigeria — as a graduate student. It was when he came to UCLA to pursue his doctorate that he began studying Wolof.

“Wolof is very different from English in a number of ways. It has noun classes,” said Torrence, who is chair of the master’s program in African studies in the UCLA International Institute. “In French and Spanish, for example, you have masculine and feminine. But Wolof has 15 noun classes. Noun classes affect how you do singulars and plurals, as well as how you do agreements with adjectives. The sentence structures that you find in languages like Wolof look very different from English.”

Fieldwork is the basis of Torrence’s linguistics research and the subject of an annual class he teaches at UCLA. In a tradition that he began at the University of Kansas, Torrence uses this class as an opportunity for both him and his students to learn about a new language. In the process, students learn how to analyze a language from the ground up: they conduct interviews with native speakers, transcribe their speech using the international phonetic alphabet and ask them about usage.

Read the full story on the UCLA International Institute website.