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Parrots, Gibbons and Syntax

Who is Martina Noteboom?
This is an existential question, oh dear! I work primarily as a theoretical linguist and I teach in the LA section as well. Outside of work, I am very much interested in birds. I have a nice collection in the office, in fact. For fun I collect anything that remotely resembles a parrot, like statues that I find at jumble sales. I own two real mini parrots – not “parkietjes”! – as well. Unfortunately, they only speak Parrotese. I imagine I understand them nevertheless. They can make so many different sounds! I have another eclectic hobby: photographing gibbons in zoos all over the place. It started when I adopted a back foot of an Asian gibbon, and it ended with me going to all the zoos during my holidays. Gibbons fascinate me: how can a creature that is so intelligent not talk or be taught sign language? Or why can’t we work out how their language works? It is linguistically very interesting.

Why do you enjoy teaching?
I know I teach a subject that is often found difficult, but I really like to see how people sometimes suddenly get it after about six weeks. It is gratifying to see this after they struggled at first. I especially like teaching the first year, because you see the students grow up. At the start of the year, they apologise for not having done their homework. At the end of the year, they just do not do it anymore. The second year is not as much fun to teach, because students often feel they already know everything (which they do not), they relax after getting their BSA and they focus on their minor. The third year is fun again, because the students enjoy choosing their own subjects and feel like they learn new things again.

What are the most memorable moments you had when teaching?
I do have some funny anecdotes. One is that a student asked me innocently, after 1.5 years of studying here, what CEEL stands for... She had had the book in her possession all that time and was supposed to have used it for several courses! Another remarkable student is the one who sat the first year syntax exam not once or twice, but fourteen times! She never made any progress and after fourteen times we finally persuaded her to give up without passing the course. This happened before the BSA system was established, of course.

Have you always known you wanted to study English or did you happen to come across it?
No. In secondary school, I did not really know what I wanted to be. Although having decided on the languages stream, I cut of my own career as a vet, which is one of the dreams I had as an adolescent. I did actually take A-levels mathematics with a slight degree of difficulty. It must be heartening to the students to know that theoretical linguists have difficulty with algebra! At the end of school, I decided I wanted to study either English or Archaeology. Then I found out that if I wanted to do Archaeology, I would have to take the first year of Art History, and that did not appeal to me at all. That is how I ended up taking English instead. The reason I am in Leiden is that there were not enough places at the time, so there was a placement committee. I wanted to study in Groningen or Leiden. I ended up in Leiden, so that worked out well!

And how about linguistics? Did you like that immediately?
Yes, I did. I became a theoretical linguist in week one after my first lecture on syntax by Bob Rigter. If my first linguistics lecture had been on phonology, perhaps I would have become a phonologist. However, it has always been syntax, because that came first. I suppose I like it so much because that is how my mind works. I like the beauty, symmetry and rules. Is it not fascinating that basically a handful of rules produce all the world’s languages? I immediately thought syntax was nice and easy: the answer was right or it was wrong. And if it was wrong, you could argue that it was. This was in contrast with the boring literature classes I had to take: what could I, as a first year student, contribute with an essay about Shakespeare, who had been written about fourteen million times already?

Is there anything you still want to achieve in your academic career?
No, there is nothing in particular. I have a teaching appointment, not a research one, so there is nothing I still want to research. I just want to keep teaching, because I really enjoy that. I have achieved something important though: I was a founding member of LEF!

What interests you about LEF?
LEF was founded by my colleague Van den Doel, who wanted to produce a Shakespeare play with his mentor students. I joined in with mine and we gave a very nice performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Hortus Botanicus. It was great: when Oberon and Titania were fighting, crows were fighting above them in a tree as well. It was as if they wanted to emphasise that nature was upset! Another time, the actor who played Duncan in Macbeth dropped out at the last moment. My colleague Robert Lankamp then played Duncan. He performed with his dog Grendel on his lap, because he couldn’t find a dog-sitter. Grendel then became the star of the show. I directed and produced some plays for LEF myself as well, but nowadays I mainly do dialect coaching and all sorts of jobs that have to be done during the performance weekend.

And do you think that it is important to do extracurricular activities?
Absolutely. LEF is quite related to the English Department of course, but I think other extracurricular activities are equally important. On paper, all university students should become academics, but this is not the case in reality of course. It is therefore very important to have done something besides your studies for the job market. If I were an employer, I would find it extremely interesting to see what a student has done besides his or her studies. Then I do not mean spending four hours a day on Facebook! I mean things like tutoring, walking with elderly people, organising outings for handicapped children, anything! These things show you have a wider experience and involvement in student life than the average student, and they show you have the discipline that is needed in the big wide world outside.

Finally, a question actually related to the theme of this issue: What gives you a sense of freedom at work or at home?
At work, I am mostly allowed to organise my own work and decide what, how and when I do things. I have to do these things within the rules of the organisation, of course, but I like the relatively large freedom I have. At home, I have a great feeling of freedom when I discover a new zoo! I have already been to all the zoos in this country and in many neighbouring countries by now. When I am on a holiday, I always go and visit the local zoo and I love doing this – apart from when I was in the zoo in Malta, where they did not have gibbons...

By Marloes van Stormbroek