Category Archives: PhD Research

Do some academics look down on other academics as well as non-academics?

A recent post on The Thesis Whisperer, a blog designed to help research students in Australia, has been quite popular this past month. The title? Academic assholes and the circle of niceness

Luckily, I have not personally experienced any aggressive or arrogant behavior at the universities I have attended in the US or Australia. My professors and colleagues have always been supportive and helpful. But I have seen this behavior at conferences, and I felt extremely bad for the students who had to deal with it. How are you supposed to respond when a jerk in the audience says your research is pointless? Belittling students and colleagues in front of others in order to feel better about your own research is just awful. Unfortunately, these assholes tend to be perceived as more intelligent than nice people, though it seems to me that people are deliberately arrogant in order to feel superior to everyone else in more than just intelligence. Insecure much? A lot of it is simply bragging – look at me! look at what I can do! look at what I know! – which is incredibly sad considering that academics are supposed to be mature adults and not five year olds.

The Thesis WhispererVery helpful blog for research students

However, I wanted to write about this post because of one of the earliest comments on it, which brings up the issue of academics seemingly acting like jerks to non-academics. Fiona says “In my experience many if not most academics, seem to look down on the lowly general public… Anyone mentioning personal experience or views is usually shouted down by someone demanding an official study is vital to back up the opinion. It’s not possible or acceptable to have a view on anything, it would appear, unless there’s an official study to ‘prove’ it.”

I can understand why she feels that some academics look down on non-academics. There are definitely some Sheldon Coopers in the real world. Academics can seem arrogant when drawing attention to their intelligence, but here’s the thing: academics are more intelligent than non-academics in their chosen fields. I recently posted about my frustration with people who continue spreading myths about linguistics and language learning. It is quite offensive when people who have no professional training in an area that you have been researching for over a decade act as if they know more than you. It is also frustrating when people believe things that have been proven wrong by research for no reason other than they “just do.” When I ask teachers who use the Direct Method why they choose to do so when data show that banning the first language is not beneficial to learning a second language, many are unaware of the research which proves its inefficacy or choose not to abandon it because using the target language 100% of the time “seems” like a better idea, regardless of what the research says. Maybe it is our fault for not popularizing our research more, but what can we do when people refuse to believe our data or change their behavior to incorporate the facts?

Asking what people’s opinions are based on should not be interpreted as academics asserting their superiority, or just plain being assholes. We hope that your opinions will be informed by empirical data, because if not, what exactly are they based on? You can have personal views and tell anecdotes about your experiences, but when you believe things that are not supported by research, of course we want to know why. One person’s opinion is in a separate domain from scientific research, where the conclusions are peer-reviewed, many experiments have been done, and the results can be replicated. So yes, we get quite upset when someone says “I smoked for 20 years and never got sick so smoking doesn’t cause cancer” because years upon years of research involving thousands of people proves that it does cause cancer for some people. Just because something didn’t happen to you, or something didn’t work for you, doesn’t mean you can make a broad generalization for all other people.

Fiona continues her comment: “Most of the public are these days cynical of studies proving this or that, given that so many are contradictory. It seems to me that there’s far more we don’t know that what we do; and that sometimes overly dramatic scare-monger type media releases are simply a way of drumming up more research funding (whilst eroding credibility in the eyes of the public).”

It is true that there is far more that we don’t know than what we do, and that is exactly why we need science. Yet the first sentence epitomizes how misunderstood science really is (especially in the US!). People don’t trust scientists because their results and conclusions are constantly changing, and yes, contradictory. But that is science: the facts must change with the evidence. I don’t know why people are so uncomfortable with this. Granted, there are other reasons why people disregard research in addition to its changing nature. In the case of using the Direct Method, it is easier to teach languages and more profitable to write textbooks in this way, so even with all the evidence against it, teachers and publishers are less likely to do anything differently. I hope everyone can see what an enormous insult to researchers this line of thinking is. To me, disregarding research because it is the easy or profitable thing to do is far more arrogant than what researchers have been accused of.

I am often defensive about the importance of research and academia, mostly because of how much higher education is attacked by right-wingers in the US. I am not trying to brag about how smart I am or make others feel like they are inferior because they are not researchers. I’m just trying to share linguistic research since it’s a shame that so much of it can only be found in journals that are ridiculously expensive (embrace open access, academia!), and since some of the research that makes its way into the popular press only tells one side of the story. If I come across as arrogant online, I apologize for that – but I will not apologize for trying to teach people the beauty of science.

Have any students experienced aggressive and arrogant behavior by colleagues (or even other students)? For those not in academia, how do you feel about academics and researchers?

Non-Linguists, Please Stop Trying to Do or Talk About Linguistics Without the Help of Actual Linguists

Ben Zimmer has a wonderful article on “When physicists do linguistics” over at the Boston Globe, which can perhaps be best summarized by this comic from xkcd:

Joking aside, I am happy that other disciplines have an interest in language – however, I hate when other disciplines try to do linguistic research and fail because they do not involve any actual linguists in the research. I agree completely when Zimmer says that there is a “need for better communication between disciplines that previously had little to do with each other.” Communication among related fields could use a little boost too, because it isn’t just physicists who publish papers that contradict linguistic research. Psychologists, speech pathologists, and cognitive scientists have been doing it wrong for a while too, especially when it comes to multilingual and cultural aspects of language acquisition.

Linguistics seems to the be the field that everyone thinks they can do without any special training. Most people wouldn’t think of talking about chemistry or mathematics without actually having studied those subjects. Yet everyone seems to think they are experts on language simply because they speak a language (their native language) or because they have learned another language. Sorry, but those abilities do not make you a qualified linguist nor do they give you the right to talk about language without checking facts or to teach language as if you were an experienced teacher. I know how to drive a car, but I don’t go around pretending to be a certified mechanic or give advice to others on how to fix their own cars.

Robert Lane Greene’s book, You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, is about this phenomenon. People believe, and repeat, such ridiculous things as “this language has eleventy billion words for X” or “this language is primitive but that language is logical” all the time. Even worse, respected authors repeat these myths in their articles and books, such as Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue, and so they are repeated again and again without anyone questioning whether they are true or not. These myths are dangerous because a lot of them are based on ethnocentrism and the perceived superiority of the way we speak compared to everyone else.

Please, do yourself a favor and study language seriously instead of repeating myths. Talk to actual linguists, read books written by actual linguists or whose authors talked to actual linguists. In addition to You Are What You Speak, you can start with Language Myths (for a general overview), Vocabulary Myths (for language learners/teachers, which I previously posted about), and the “truth-squad” blog Language Log. But most importantly, always question what is written about language even if it is published by best-selling authors or academic researchers because they may not be linguists at all.

Update 26/02/13: And another one! Ugh. “Why speaking English can make you poor when you retire” about research done by a behavioural economist. Hey, that’s not linguistics! ::sigh:: At least the article quotes my hero, John McWhorter.

Update 15/03/15: So glad I’m not the only one who complains about this: If you’re not a linguist, don’t do linguistic research by @EvilJoeMcVeigh

Topic vs. Frequency in Vocabulary Learning

Teachers and learners of languages, I am looking for your input in the topic vs. frequency debate. Almost all textbooks and coursebooks introduce vocabulary in chapter topics or themes such as food, clothing, transportation, etc.  These related words are often used to fill in the slots of functional phrases, which a lot of current books are based on thanks to the  popularity of the communicative approach. For example, one of the chapters in the French textbook that I use in my class combines the functions of offering, accepting and refusing with the topic of drinks. So students are expected to memorize the question Voulez-vous boire un/e ____ ? and the vocabulary list is full of nouns such as un verre de lait, une tasse de thé, un coca, un chocolat chaud, etc. (The conjugation of vouloir is not actually taught in this or any preceding chapters.)

The problems with presenting vocabulary like this, however, is that it goes against vocabulary acquisition research. Many researchers have argued that grouping vocabulary into topics (and therefore semantic sets) actually hinders acquisition and confuses the students more. The topics tend to represent concrete concepts as well and can easily be illustrated in the chapters with pictures or photographs – which consequently leaves out abstract ideas. Plus words grouped according to topic mean that the words are not grouped according to frequency, which is the most important criterion for selecting vocabulary to teach/learn first.  Of course, frequency is not the only criterion, but it should be the starting point for vocabulary selection.

Learn opposites together = forever confused

If frequency is supported by research and topic is not, then why do all textbooks teach vocabulary based on topic? Is it because it easier to write textbooks in this way? Is it easier for the instructor to teach in this way? Is it considered less boring and more engaging for students to learn in this manner even if it goes against vocabulary acquisition research?

I’ve heard arguments that students should learn vocabulary in topics so they can talk about them right away, but that doesn’t make sense if the students don’t even have the basic vocabulary needed to construct sentences. Even if you learn all the articles of clothing, what exactly can you say about them? How can you have conversations about clothes if all you know if a list of nouns? In my class’s textbook, students learn to say Je porte un/e ___ and then some adjectives to describe the clothes. I really don’t see how that is going to help them communicate in the real world.

It seems to me that it’s more of a classroom vs. real world debate. We want students to be able to use the language as soon as possible, even if that means teaching things that will only ever be used inside the classroom. But isn’t it our job as educators to prepare students as much as possible for the future when they will leave our classrooms? Or are we simply just trying to make sure they don’t fall asleep in class?

I’ m not saying that students should just learn the 2,000 most frequent words of a language in sequential order. That would be rather boring and frustrating. But there is a much better way of presenting vocabulary – the most frequent words among a few topics presented in story format, for example – that textbook authors keep resisting. And I want to know why! Is it because the textbook publishing industry does not want to change and try something new (for fear of losing money)? Is it because too many people think it’s more logical to learn vocabulary in semantic sets regardless of what research says? Personally I feel it is much more logical to learn the words that you are most likely to encounter, i.e. the most frequent words. Even if there are problems with frequency – such as, what texts were used in the corpus to generate the frequency data? – it is actually supported by research, and that is what is most important to me.

How many first year French students do you think really need to learn the words arc-boutant (flying buttress) or fluocompacte (energy-saving) but not tel (such), également (also), soit (either…or), mener (to lead), appartenir (to belong to), atteindre (to reach), entier (whole), moindre (least), or intérêt (interest)? These are all words that are not taught in the active vocabulary lists of ANY of the 12 first year textbooks that I am analyzing and they are all ranked among the top 500 most frequent words in French.

So what do you think?

404 Days in Australia: On my way to Permanent Residency

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

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)

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

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

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

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)