Prompt: A prompt of your choice.
It can be a truly profound and inspiring experience when a work of art or literature gives voice to a truth that you have been contemplating, but up to that point, have been unable to properly express. I recently had such an experience reading A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. In the novel, protagonist Mahit Dzmare finds herself isolated on a foreign planet representing her home space station and serving as the ambassador to Teixcalaan, the greatest empire in the galaxy. While there, she is immersed in a culture she has previously only learned about through impassioned study. Language takes center stage in Mahit’s great adventure as her survival and that of her home depend on her understanding of byzantine diplomatic communication and subtle political subterfuge in a story that highlights the power of culture to shape language and that of language to shape thought.
While I have always been inexorably drawn to the study of language, I struggled to express the rationale behind this fascination. Yet, the careful examination of linguistics in A Memory Called Empire crystallized that my appreciation for language was driven by its complex and omnipresent impact defining the parameters and perceptions that define the society in which we live; for example, the words used by the Teixcalaan for their empire, for the galaxy, and for civilization itself are the same, revealing their culturally entrenched assumption that they not only occupy the center of the galaxy, but that their empire defines the borders of the civilized universe. If that is the structure of your language, do you even have the mental tools to think about your empire and the galaxy in a different way? If your language doesn’t have the words to express an idea, are you capable of thinking it? This example and many others helped me to better understand that language is not only commingled with all conscious human thought, but also with deep-rooted beliefs inherent to culture, and at times, humanity itself. This novel clarified that my fascination with language is the result of an understanding that it is at the core of what makes us human, as it operates in conjunction with, not independently from culture, society, and thought to create the world in which we live.
Unsurprisingly, given its central role, human language is also almost incomprehensibly complicated. Its infinite complexity is hidden behind a mask of simplicity because the human brain’s exceptional language capacity makes the miraculous seem ordinary. More than twenty years after IBM’s Deep Blue ended the reign of humans as the best chess players on the planet, artificial intelligence (AI) can only perform the most basic of language functions. Chess may seem to represent the apex of human mental capabilities, but if complexity is judged by the difficulty of creating AI capable of performing the same function, basic human language has chess beat by light years. The challenge of developing AI capable of discerning meaning from the intricate web of language and training it to communicate with humans in a seamless and productive manner is immense. I intend to focus my educational pursuits on this field, which occupies the intersection between computer science and linguistics. While progress has been made, there are still many mountains to climb, rivers to cross, and innovations to discover. I believe that I have a role to play in that great adventure, which will be steeped in linguistic complexity and have significant implications for the world – just like Mahit’s adventure in A Memory Called Empire.
Tips for Writing:
My first piece of advice would be to organize the essay prompts by category so you can find common themes. When you’re looking at these shared topics, spend a few days brainstorming and write anything that comes to mind in a journal. Reflect on your extracurricular activities, your experiences, and the values you hold. Remember you don’t have to write strictly about school – touching upon your family/friends/personal beliefs can also be incredibly insightful! Try to get started as early as possible; beginning in the summer is a great idea because, during the fall, you’ll also have focus on school and clubs/sports. Also, don’t be scared to write a messy first draft, since you should expect to be editing each essay a ton (so no pressure!) Also try to get feedback from as many people as you can. Teachers are always willing to help out, so make use of their wealth of knowledge. You can also have your parents or siblings look over your essays (or any other trustworthy adult). Definitely take their advice into account, but make sure your own unique voice continues to shine through!