Photo: Char Smullyan GS’98

Benjamin Gittelson CC’15 Is Hooked on Language

“It was cool to formulate a research question, execute it and analyze the data.”

An introductory course in linguistics was all it took to hook Benjamin Gittelson CC’15.
Having arrived at the College with a vague interest in “writing and words and languages” but intrigued by plenty of other fields, Gittelson was fascinated by linguistics’ overlap with psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, education and computer science, and he saw an opportunity to explore all of them “through the common theme of language.”
Ultimately, Gittelson designed an independent major in linguistics and pursued summer research to supplement his coursework. His most valuable research experience came last summer, as an intern at the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford, where he led a 1,300-participant study that gauged how extraneous information affects a person’s ability to make accurate inferences in conversation. It was the first time he designed and conducted a linguistics experiment from start to finish. “It was cool to formulate a research question, execute it and analyze the data,” he says.
As a linguistics major, Gittelson was required to study a non-Germanic, non-Romance language. He chose Swahili and enjoyed it so much that he sought a U.S. Department of Education Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship, which allowed him to further study the language in Kenya during summer 2013. “[Swahili] developed more recently than English and is more structured and logical,” says Gittelson. “English has a lot of exceptions. It was a very interesting point of comparison.”
The previous summer, as a research assistant at the Polinsky Language Sciences Lab at Harvard, Gittelson traveled to Toulouse and Strasbourg in France, where he interviewed more than 30 children who learned English from Anglophone expatriate parents. The goal was to see how the grammar and pronunciation of these “heritage language learners” differed from native English speakers and those who acquire English as a second language.
At the College, Gittelson, who has played the violin since he was 5, took individual lessons and performed with the Columbia University Bach Society orchestra. From his first year, he also was involved with Spectator, where he rose through the ranks to become deputy news editor as a senior. “Spectator has been kind of a home base for me; it has a really strong community,” says Gittelson.
Though not committed to one career path, Gittelson, who was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in May, has envisioned himself as a professor since high school and will take a step in that direction this fall when he pursues the first of two successive master’s degrees in linguistics at Cambridge. A Euretta J. Kellett Fellowship from the College will cover his tuition as well as travel and living expenses. “If I enjoy that, then I’ll look into Ph.D. programs,” he says.
Nathalie Alonso CC’08, from Queens, is a freelance journalist and an editorial producer for, Major League Baseball’s official Spanish language website. She writes “Student Spotlight” for CCT.

This article was originally published in Columbia College Today.
Published Wednesday June 24, 2015

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