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The Mechanics of Language

Introduction

My name is Alina, and I am a first-year PhD student in Linguistics. The most common two questions I get asked when I say this are: “What is Linguistics?” and “How many languages do you speak?” So, I’ll begin by answering these. Linguistics is the “scientific study of language”. It is a vast discipline, but some examples of what linguists are interested in are: how grammars are constructed, how language changes, what the similarities and differences are between the languages of the world, how children and adults learn languages, how people’s use of language varies according to social factors (gender, age, context etc.), how the order of words in a sentence gives that sentence meaning, the list goes on…!

As for the second question, being a linguist does not automatically mean you speak tons of languages (though some do)! I speak French, I am learning Spanish, and I understand Reunion Creole, which is the language that my PhD research is on. Reunion Creole is spoken on the island of La Réunion, a French overseas department (next to Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean). Creole languages are relatively new languages (compared to English or French, for example) which arise when groups of speakers with different native tongues are found in a situation where they need to communicate with one another. This happened in La Réunion when French colonisers settled on the island and imported slaves from Madagascar and East Africa. Later, immigrants from India and China came to the island to work. Over the subsequent generations, the language formed through the interaction of these groups of speakers. It is now the native language of the majority of the island, spoken alongside French. Many of the words in Reunion Creole are derived from French words, so it may sound familiar to a French speaker, but the grammars of the two languages are different. 

Cap Noir, La Réunion: here’s a picture which shows you the beautiful mountainous landscape of La Reunion

In Depth…

So how did I find myself doing a PhD on this topic?! I have always had a fascination for foreign languages, and just words in general, which led me to study French at undergraduate level. During my degree, I chose modules in French Linguistics and really enjoyed them. I enjoy the discipline as it applies the scientific rigour and logic of the Sciences and Maths, to an inherently social phenomenon: language. In the third year of my degree, I got the opportunity to go on a year abroad. I chose to study in La Réunion, and it was there that I discovered Reunion Creole.  On returning, I decided I wanted to continue studying and explore the subject of Linguistics in more depth with an MA and PhD.

My PhD project investigates the syntax and focus structure of Reunion Creole. This is essentially how the word order of a sentence can be manipulated to change its emphasis and by consequence, its meaning. And what is the point in this research? Firstly, a better understanding of the mechanics of individual languages enables us to make comparisons with the languages of the world. This in turn allows us to better understand the faculty of language, which is a fundamental part of our existence. Secondly, knowledge of the technicalities of a language also enables us to better teach it in the classroom. In La Réunion, Reunion Creole is an officially recognised regional language and French is the national language. Historically, French has been more highly regarded and continues to be the language of the law, administration and schooling.  Like many creole languages, Reunion Creole has not always been highly regarded with respect to French, despite it being the native language of the majority of the island. A person’s mother tongue is a fundamental part of their identity, so I consider it very important that it be valued. Furthermore, research has suggested that bilingualism has cognitive benefits, which may reduce the likelihood of dementia, for example. It is therefore imperative that bilingualism is encouraged, so any research promoting historically undervalued languages serves this purpose.

La plage de l’Ermitage, La Réunion. 

Going Further…

If you’re interested in languages generally, there are plenty of resources that may feed your curiosity:

Grand Bénare, La Réunion: at the top of a hike in La Réunion – above the clouds! 


 

Linguistics and the way we learn!

by YPU Admin on October 5, 2017, Comments. Tags: foreign languages, Humanities, language acquisition, linguistics, and MFL

Introduction

My name is Sascha Stollhans and I’m a PhD student in Linguistics at the University of Manchester. Linguistics is the scientific study of language and an incredibly versatile and interdisciplinary subject. Linguists look at all sorts of things related to language, e. g. the structure and sounds of language, how language is represented in the mind, how similar or different languages are, how we use language to express our thoughts, feelings and opinions, or even to insult people, why we talk differently depending on who we are talking to, and so on.

 My research investigates the acquisition of foreign languages, in particular how the languages we know interact with and influence one another.

In Depth…

At school I always enjoyed foreign languages the most. That’s why I decided to study Linguistics and French at University, followed by a Master’s degree in Language Teaching. I like to discover how languages work, how we learn them and what successful language teaching should be like.

 Being a great enthusiast of languages, I’ve always found it unfair that children learn their first language so effortlessly. Why can something so natural turn into rather hard work when we are older? What can we do to make language learning as effective and enjoyable as possible? It was my interest in questions like these that made me choose to become a linguist and language teacher.

 After a few years working as a language teacher, I came to Manchester to take up my PhD in Linguistics. My study explores how previously acquired languages influence the process of learning a new language.

Specifically, I work with English learners of French and German. With the help of a number of experiments, my aim is to shed some light on the way several languages in our mind might influence one another.

 For example, I am trying to find out if the fact that someone speaks French makes a difference when they start learning German. Could the additional language make it easier for them, or might it in fact be a hindrance?

 In order to investigate this, I will conduct a number of experiments with language learners. For instance, I will do an eye-tracking study, which looks at the way our eyes move while we process sentences in a foreign language. Comparing the eye movements of native speakers with those of language learners can tell us a lot about the struggles languages learners have.

 The results of my study will hopefully provide some explanations and help make language teaching and learning easier and more effective. They might help us explain why language learners find certain aspects of the language more difficult than others, and how we could make sure language teaching is more effective.

What I enjoy most about my PhD is that I can combine the scientific study of language with very relevant real-life problems. I’m using theoretical considerations about language and the results of my research study to tackle real problems. And in doing so, I learn something new every day - be it a new fact about language or a new method.

Going Further…

“What is Linguistics?”: a great introduction to linguistics by the Linguistic Society of America

https://www.linguisticsociety.org/what-linguistics

“What do you start with in a Third Language?”: very interesting YouTube video introducing the linguistics research about people who learn more than one foreign language

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9F5Bq_uvbcM

 Multilingual Manchester: a project investigating the over 200 languages that are spoken in Manchester

http://mlm.humanities.manchester.ac.uk/

 About eye-tracking as a scientific method:

http://www.eyetracking.com/About-Us/What-Is-Eye-Tracking

 Some interesting language-related Twitter accounts:

@EvrydayLg, @WorldOfLang, @lynneguist, @TheLingSpace

 The Linguistics department at Manchester:

http://www.alc.manchester.ac.uk/linguistics-and-english-language/