Category Archives: PhD Research

404 Days in Australia: On my way to Permanent Residency

By   August 13, 2012

As I am diligently working on my PhD research and starting to write up my preliminary results, I haven’t had much time to devote to the website or blog. My one year anniversary of arriving in Australia came and went in the middle of finally buying a car, learning to drive on the left, moving into a house, spending way too much money on furniture and appliances, and adopting a cute black cat.

His name is Charlie. Or Chah-lee.

I am feeling much more settled in my life in Australia. I really like my house, I can go to the places that I need to go without having to depend on someone else, and I have a routine and purpose to my days that was missing in France. I have two years left of my PhD, and then I hope to do a post-doc and perhaps even stay in academia to become a full-time French and/or linguistics lecturer. Or maybe I will leave academia and do something completely different. I’m not entirely sure. The certainty in all of this is that I will stay in Australia. Once I finish my PhD, I can apply for permanent residency, and then hopefully one more year after that I can apply for citizenship.

I am much happier in Australia than I was in France, mostly because I feel that I can have a real career with a decent income here. In France, I was always searching for a better and permanent job but always ended up with temporary contracts and very low incomes (compared to the US and Australia, that is.) Teaching English was never my passion even though I have a TESL certificate and many years of experience. Teaching French to Anglophones instead of teaching English to Francophones was always my intended goal, but I could never accomplish that while in France.

There are things that I miss about France because they were such a large and important part of my life. But life goes on regardless of where I am in the world. True friends know how to stay in touch, and I can always go back and visit. I still love being a tourist and traveling around France but living there as an expat is a totally different experience that I don’t want to try again. And it certainly isn’t that I don’t care much for France; it’s more that I am completely in love with Australia.

I love wide open spaces and sunshine. Plus cute animals!

For now I’d like to focus on the French influence in the South Pacific, and to help Australians learn about all of the wonderful places  that are much closer to home than France. (New Caledonia and French Polynesia are at the top of my travel list once I’ve seen more of Australia.) I am, of course, very interested in creating resources for Australian students learning French since all of the textbooks used here are either written for American students or designed for foreigners living in France. Implementing online French classes for students in rural areas is also important to me. Australia is a big country with not a lot of people, but the few people who do live far away from the major cities deserve the opportunity to have a good education as well.

Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching

By   August 9, 2012

Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching by Keith Folse (2004, University of Michigan Press) is a great introduction to the gap between practice and research in vocabulary learning and teaching.

I highly recommend the book, but if you’d like a shorter summary, Folse’s article “Myths about Teaching and Learning Second Language Vocabulary: What Recent Research Says” [TESL Reporter 37,2 (2004), pp. 1-13] is also available if you have access to online journals.

The eight myths are:

  1. Vocabulary is not as important in learning a foreign language as grammar or other areas.
  2. It is not good to use lists of words when learning vocabulary.
  3. Vocabulary should be presented in semantic sets.
  4. The use of translations is a poor way to learn new vocabulary.
  5. Guessing words from context is as productive for foreign language learners as it is for first language learners.
  6. The best vocabulary learners make use of only one or two effective specific vocabulary learning strategies.
  7. Foreign language learners should use a monolingual dictionary.
  8. Vocabulary is sufficiently covered in our curricula and courses.

Think about your language classes and how many of these myths were prevalent in the textbook or even encouraged by your teacher.  These myths make teaching languages as well as designing textbooks much easier for the teacher or author, but they go against second language acquisition research on how learners should go about learning a language and tend to make learning even harder.

Books on French Linguistics and Sociolinguistics (in English)

By   July 26, 2012

For any students interested in French linguistics or sociolinguistics, here are the books that I recommend for an introduction as well as a more in-depth explanation. You don’t necessarily need to have a background in linguistics to be able to understand everything, especially for the first three books.

Exploring the French Language by R. Anthony Lodge, Nigel Armstrong, Yvette M. L. Ellis and Jane F. Shelton

French: A Linguistic Introduction by Zsuzsanna Fagyal, Douglas Kibbee, and Frederic Jenkins

The French Language Today: A Linguistic Introduction by Adrian Battye, Marie-Anne Hintze, and Paul Rowlett

A Sociolinguistic History of Parisian French by R. Anthony Lodge

French: From Dialect to Standard by R. Anthony Lodge

Unfortunately a few of these books are a bit more expensive (mostly because they only exist in hardcover). Hopefully you can access them electronically through your library.

Social and Linguistic Change in European French by Nigel Armstrong and Tim Pooley

Social and Stylistic Variation in Spoken French by Nigel Armstrong

Sociolinguistic Variation in Contemporary French edited by Kate Beeching, Nigel Armstrong, and Françoise Gadet

Recommendations for books written in French to follow.

On textbooks, moving, and being cold in Australia

By   July 7, 2012

Sorry about the lack of updates lately! I have now been in Australia for one year, which means (supposedly) I am a third of the way through my PhD already.  My days are filled with reading textbooks (all eighteen of them) and analysing vocabulary lists, which I know sounds incredibly tedious exciting. I’m also currently in the middle of moving so even though we’re still on the break between semesters, I haven’t had any time to update the site or blog.

Just a few of my new best friends

I am extremely excited about the house I’m moving into (not so much about all the money I’m spending on furniture though), especially since it has ducted heating & cooling. Australia may be known as a hot country, and it doesn’t exactly get that cold in winter – the average temp around here is 15° C / 59°F – but to North Americans like me, it is very cold indoors. Houses aren’t built to keep the warmth in, and a lot of places just have electric heaters which are very expensive to use. The place I live now is usually only 12° C / 53.6°F when I get up in the morning. I cannot wait for spring! Plus I will be able to have a cat at the new place, so Canaille will soon have an Aussie cousin. The other major accomplishment this past month was buying a car. I’m still getting used to driving on the left, though it’s actually sitting on the right side of the car and using my left hand to shift into drive that I still find bizarre. I keep reaching for the seatbelt on the wrong side!

She’s the same age as some of my students

So while I’m still distracted from the blog thanks to real life, here’s a quote from Paul Nation on the vocabulary in language textbooks that teachers and students should think about:

“It is worth noting that there are principles that some teachers and course designers follow that go against research findings. These include: ‘All vocabulary learning should occur in context,’ ‘The first language should not be used as a means of presenting the meaning of a word,’ ‘Vocabulary should be presented in lexical sets,’ Most attention should be paid to the first presentation of  a word,’ and ‘Vocabulary learning does not benefit from being planned, but can be determined by the occurrence of words in texts, tasks and themes.’ Course designers who follow these principles should read the relevant research and reconsider their position.” (Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, 2001, p. 387)

I am particularly interested in the first three principles, and I’ve already posted about use of the first language in classrooms. The issue of lexical sets is what I am focusing on right now and will hopefully be able to write about on the blog soon.

Off to Perth for a Teachers of French Conference

By   March 31, 2012

I fly to Perth, Western Australia, tomorrow to present at the Teachers of French Association Conference. My presentation on the vocabulary coverage of French textbooks will include the beginning stages of my PhD project. I will report back on all of the presentations and everything new I learn about teaching and learning French in Australia next week.

Then thanks to the Easter holiday, I have a few days to explore the Perth region, including Fremantle and Rottnest Island. La vie est belle, n’est-ce pas ?

Beach on Rottnest Island

Native Speaker Teachers and Use of the First Language in the Classroom

By   February 17, 2012

Around the world, there is a conventional thought that foreign languages should only be taught by native speakers and that the students’ native language should be banned from the classroom. This is especially commonplace among English as a Second or Foreign Language schools which tend to exclusively employ native speakers of English, even if they have absolutely no experience or training in language teaching. However, this is mostly done for reasons related to money, prestige and prejudice and it is not, in fact, supported by linguistic research. Imagine any other business where you could teach someone else to do something in which you have absolutely no knowledge or success. How can you teach someone to speak a second or additional language when you do not speak a second or additional language yourself?

Or knowledge, or expertise, or degrees…

Only hiring native speakers and denying use of the native/first language (L1) only serves to undermine (and insult) multilingual local teachers and contradicts numerous studies showing the benefits of using the native language to learn a second or subsequent language. I certainly feel insulted when people say they will not learn languages from non-native speaking teachers because I am a non-native teacher of French. I am fluent in the language and have years of teaching experience, as well as several degrees and publications, and yet because my native language is not French that somehow makes me inferior to native speakers with no experience or education in teaching. In many ways, I actually prefer non-native speakers as teachers because then I know they have gone through the same experience as me in learning the language and they know the mistakes that I am likely to make and how to avoid them. Many people do not want to learn from non-native speakers because of their accent or the fear that the teacher will make mistakes, most of the input in the foreign language needs to come from authentic sources of language use rather than from the teacher anyway.

This problem is more rampant among English classes since English is taught much more often across the globe, but the prejudice remains for all languages. And it leads into the second issue of banning the L1, because if the teacher is monolingual then he or she cannot resort to another language in the classroom. Yet second language acquisition research provides no reason to ban the L1 completely from the classroom, and there certainly exists research to support that using the L1 is more effective for certain aspects of language learning – such as explaining grammar or tasks, disciplining students, translations for ambiguous words, etc. Of course, there are limits to how much the L1 should be used as the amount of input in the second language (L2) is extremely important. But the L1 does indeed help in learning the L2 and creating connections between the two languages. As there is some overlap among languages in the brain, it can be impossible to “turn off” the L1 when using the L2. Code-switching and constantly moving between languages and cultures is entirely normal – it is not something to be banned or looked down upon.

The success of immersion programs has been used as the rationale to support banning the L1, and even though teaching non-language courses in a foreign language can improve language learning, many immersion programs do not ban the L1 completely. In fact, much of the research on immersion programs show the importance of adding an L2 to an L1 instead of replacing the L1 by an L2. Unfortunately it happens all too often that the opposite of research reported in the popular press immediately becomes wrong. We are too quick to assume that evidence for an idea also means evidence against the competing idea. Yet nothing is ever that black and white. The success of a few immersion programs should in no way imply that non-immersion programs are a failure, especially when there is no evidence for it. And thanks to research on code-switching, the cognitive benefits of L1 use, and L2 language exposure (input alone does not suffice – it must become intake), many scholars have softened their position to agree that the L1 should not be banned completely.

Bilingual kidsCode-switching makes me smile

Language students should always be thought of as developing bilinguals or multilinguals, rather than two or more monolinguals. The monolingual native speaker model that is portrayed in essentially all pedagogical materials (as well as by hiring monolingual teachers) presents an unattainable and impossible goal for language learners. When you learn a second language, you are no longer monolingual and by definition, you will never be a native speaker of another language. So why is that the model that we teach to students?  I completely agree with Carl Blyth when he notes the irony of “using monolingual speakers as role models for learners striving to overcome their own monolingualism.” We need non-native and multilingual models and teachers of the language because that is exactly what the students are and what they will become: non-native and multilingual.

Students should never be denied the opportunity to use their L1 in any type of learning, especially young students who haven’t even completely acquired their native language yet. Allowing the native language in school has many benefits, yet there still exists “English Only” attitudes that only help to deteriorate students’ cognitive abilities. Recent reports of students being punished for speaking their native language – such as Menominee in the US or French in northern Belgium – are worrying because they bring back horrible reminders of Native American boarding schools and the Stolen Generation. Students should certainly never be made to feel as though their language is bad or wrong, because if their language is undesirable, then what about the culture linked to the language or the people themselves who speak the language? Are they undesirable as human beings as well?

English Only ZoneJust say NO to lack of empirical evidence!

Fortunately researchers have started calling for a more bilingual or lingua franca approach to teaching English which focuses on context and learner needs, which really should be applied to all languages. Ideally the teachers are multilingual and multicultural, who know the language of their students and have some knowledge of the particularities of the varieties of the language used throughout the world. When talking about world languages, we tend to think of English, Spanish, French, Arabic, etc. but every language consists of varieties depending on where and how it is used. For more information on lingua franca teaching, World Englishes: Implications for International Communication and English Language Teaching by Andy Kirkpatrick is a great introduction.


Other books I like to re-read on this topic include:

Australia’s Language Potential by Michael Clyne

Second Language Learning and Language Teaching by Vivian Cook

First Language Use in Second and Foreign Language Learning edited by Miles Turnbull and Jennifer Dailey-O’Cain (especially chapter 9 by Carl Blyth)

Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking

By   February 4, 2012

Anna Wierzbicka is a Polish-Australian linguist who has extensively researched intercultural linguistics, semantics and pragmatics. I have been reading many of her books and articles for my PhD research because she is interested in how language reflects ways of living and thinking, and more specifically, how the lexicon or words of a language can provide valuable clues to understanding culture.

Linguistic relativity, better known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, has been debated for quite a while by certain researchers who argue that human thought and language are completely separate and independent. Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, is probably the most popular denier. However, Pinker was attempting to describe human thought and cognition on the basis of English alone.  Wierzbicka, among others, has rightly criticized Pinker for his views on the link between language and thought. Here are a few quotes from the introduction to her book, Understanding Cultures through their Key Words:

“To people with an intimate knowledge of two (or more) different languages and cultures, it is usually self-evident that language and patterns of thought are interlinked… Monolingual popular opinion, as well as the opinion of some cognitive scientists with little interest in languages and cultures, can be quite emphatic in their denial of the existence of such links and differences.”

“The grip of people’s native language on their thinking habits is so strong that they are no more aware of the conventions to which they are party than they are of the air they breathe; and when others try to draw attention to these conventions they may even go on with a seemingly unshakable self-assurance to deny their existence.”

“The conviction that one can understand human cognition, and human psychology in general, on the basis of English alone seems shortsighted, if not downright ethnocentric.”

The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – that language constrains thought and prevents users of a language from thinking about certain concepts – is indeed wrong. The weak version of the hypothesis, which Guy Deutscher attempted to explain in his popular article Does Your Language Shape How You Think? and his book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, is generally accepted by most linguists. Deutscher, however, insists on stating that language creates thought when in fact it may be more accurate to say that culture influences thought, which is then expressed through language. Personally, I believe that language reflects and describes ways of living and thinking, but it does not necessarily shape or determine how you live or think.

This is precisely John McWhorter’s criticism of Deutscher’s book, though I do have to disagree with his assertion that color perception as evidence of linguistic relativity is “dull.” If someone does not think cultural elaboration through the lexicon, such as the famous words for snow example, is interesting or relevant, then why does that person bother researching languages and cultures in the first place? Besides, as Wierzbicka explains, “once the principle of cultural elaboration has been established as valid on the basis of ‘boring’ examples, it can then be applied to areas whose patterning is less obvious to the naked eye.”

Here’s an interesting experiment you can try with color perception. It will be very easy to choose which square is a different color in the image below.


Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking


However, it will probably be a tiny bit harder to find which square is different in the second image. (If you’ve seen these circles before, beware that I did change the location of the different square!)


Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking


Yet the Himba of northern Namibia have the exact opposite problem. They are able to detect the different square quite easily in the second image, but took longer for the first image, because their culture, and therefore language, has a different way of categorizing shades of colors. Not every human being thinks in terms of  ROYGBIV. Because English speakers do not normally classify colors based on slightly different shades (or at least what we perceive as slightly different shades) of green in the second image, it is harder for English speakers to see it at first glance, but the absence of that word does not mean that English speakers cannot see it at all or do not have the ability to form the concept in their minds.

My native language does not have a word for Schadenfreude but I certainly know what it is and can understand the concept. The fact that German has one word for this concept and English does not simply means that the concept is perhaps more salient for users of German, but it does not mean that users of other languages cannot conceive of what it is. There are countless “untranslatable” words such as saudade, hyggelig, or litost that express the values and thoughts of the people who use these words. They provide insights into the life of the society and culture to which the language belongs. We cannot even begin to understand a different culture if we do not know the words because it is through language that culture and ways of living and thinking are expressed.


Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking


Another book by Wierzbicka I recommend, Translating Lives: Living with Two Languages and Cultures, includes the experiences of twelve Australians who speak more than one language. Their stories and their lives show how language, culture and identity cannot be separated and what it is like to live with, and between, multiple languages and cultures. For anyone who is a speaker of another language, the idea that you are a different person and that you interact with other human beings in a different way when using different languages seems a bit obvious. But most monolinguals are not aware that their worldview is shaped by their native, and only, culture and language. They tend to assume that the every human being thinks in the same way but simply uses different words for concepts, objects, ideas, etc. Even if they know a few words in another language, they believe that translations found in dictionaries are sufficient. Dictionaries may list freedom as the translation for French liberté, but are they really the same thing? How about truth and Russian pravda? Anger and Italian rabbia?

To quote Sapir: “The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.”

When I speak French, I am fully aware that I am not the same person as when I speak English. I do not interact with other French speakers in the same manner as I do with English speakers while I’m speaking English. There are certain concepts that I find easier to express in French, and yet others that do not have a strong enough emphasis or connotation for me if I use French rather than English. When I hear the word milk in English, I have a different concept of what it is compared to when I hear lait in French. I’ve explored some of these cultural differences before (Cultural Differences in Photos & Culturally Relevant Photos), but they are not limited to separate languages. There are, of course, differences among dialects of the same language. Whenever Australians say the word thongs, I picture a very different article of clothing than they do!

That is not to say that all words in a language are culture-specific. If they were, cultural differences couldn’t really be explored. Linguistic relativity is actually combined with linguistic universality. Wierzbicka is also the lead researcher on Natural Semantic Metalanguage, an approach to cultural analysis that is based on the idea that there are, in fact, a few universal meanings expressed by words (semantic primes) shared by all human languages and that using these primes can help eliminate cross-cultural miscommunication. Listen to/read her interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for more information.

I’d love to hear your opinions on this! Do you believe that how we speak shapes how we think OR that how we think shapes how we speak? Or are language and thought so interlinked that we cannot separate them?

Being a PhD / Higher Degree by Research (HDR) Student in Australia

By   August 12, 2011

Doing a PhD in Australia

Let me tell you a little about being a PhD / Higher Degree by Research (HDR) student in Australia. As the name implies, it is a research only degree that is supposed to take three years – meaning you don’t have any courses to take and your “full-time job” is to do research. You can teach/tutor if you want to, but it is not a required part of the degree.

Most universities offer Masters Degrees and PhDs as well as Professional Doctorates by Research, while the regular postgraduate degrees that require coursework include Graduate Certificates, Diplomas, and Masters Degrees. However, since Australia has the Honours system for their Bachelors degrees which adds another year during which students undertake a research project and write a thesis, many students go from an Honours Bachelors degree into a PhD without getting a Masters degree. Obtaining a PhD can be done in seven consecutive years (3 years for Bachelors + 1 year for Honours + 3 years for PhD), though it is more common to start a PhD later in life than directly after a Bachelors degree. The average age of beginning PhD students in Australia is 28 for science degrees and 38 for humanities degrees.

I was lucky enough to receive a full scholarship and living stipend so that my tuition and health insurance are both already paid for and I receive a “salary” every two weeks to cover rent and living costs. It is not a high salary by American or Australian standards, but it is much more than I ever made working full-time in France. Scholarships are quite competitive for international students though, and you must be full-time and doing research on campus (internal, not external, student) in order to receive them. The application itself for admission/scholarships was quite long (a lot of writing on your proposed research, obviously), but did not require the GRE or any other standardized test scores. My program provides a research fund that includes reimbursement for books or equipment that I might need to buy (which includes home internet costs!) and travel funds to pay for plane tickets and accommodation when presenting at conferences. Since I am also attached to a Research Centre within my School and Division, there are other grants I can apply for if I need more funding.

On campus, I have my own desk and shared office with other PhD students, but since I am a student and not staff, I still get the many, many perks of having a student ID (discounts galore! MS Office for $99, for example, and half price bus tickets). I don’t have any office hours, nor do I actually have to use my workspace if I don’t want to. I am free to work at home or in the library if I wish to do so. It is essentially a Results Only Work Environment (or perhaps Learning Environment) which I love, as it allows me to work when I am the most motivated. I have monthly meetings with my supervisors to make sure I am on the right track and actually doing something, but other than that, I am free to do what I want. So Research Degrees are not for everyone – if you have motivation problems, I wouldn’t suggest them – but they are great for those of us who work best independently and on our own schedule.

And don’t mind being buried under massive amounts of books and articles…

The UN’s Education Index ranks Australia’s education system as tied for first place with Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand. Canada is next, but the US is down at number 20. The average length of Australian PhDs is 4.5 years, while Americans PhDs average 8 years because of the extra coursework (and perhaps teaching). About 50% of people with PhDs in Australia do not continue in academia, and students are not required to publish or teach as much as in the US (especially in the Humanities), so the push to remain in academia is not as great. Since I am still not sure what I would like to do after I finish my PhD (become a professor or researcher or leave academia altogether?), I like the flexibility of my program and not feeling as though I am already being forced towards a career in academia, which is the impression I get when reading about American Humanities PhDs.

I do have a plan!

I’ve only been a student for about a month, and these are simply my own experiences and observations at my particular university for a humanities degree. I’d love to hear from other HDR students and PhD students in the US to know more about different programs.

For more information on the various Australian universities, check out Universities Australia and the Group of Eight (the Ivy League of Australia) as well as the Australian Technology Network, which is the best bet for international students – though don’t let the name fool you; my university belongs to the ATN and my PhD is in Languages & Linguistics rather than science or technology. There is also a forum at Study Connect if you want to talk to other students and find out about life in the major cities.

Feel free to ask me questions if you plan to apply. The main deadline for the International Postgraduate Research Scholarship (for commencement in early 2012) is August 31, 2011. There are other scholarships at the Australian Postgraduate Awards rate available for international students starting mid-year as well (July), which is what I received.