After high school, I spent a year in France as an exchange student, and that’s when I started really listening to the way people talk, and observing differences from how they talked at home in Canada and in France. When I started my undergrad degree at Queen’s, I knew I wanted to study languages, but normally studying a language meant studying its literature, and I wasn’t sure about completely giving up math and science. I pored through the entire course calendar looking at all the program possibilities, and found something called ‘linguistics’ that purported to be the scientific study of language. I was hooked from the first linguistics class, and I knew I wanted to be a linguistics researcher, analyzing language in use. Linguistics allows me to combine my love of analysis and scientific method with my love of social observation, and interaction. In essence, I didn’t have to choose between math and literature after all: I get the best of both worlds in linguistics.
Different aspects of my research are applicable in different ways. My lexicographic work on the Michif language has an obvious direct application because it is a dictionary that may be used by learners and teachers of the language in a concrete way. This work in language revitalization is also important in validating and enlightening others about a language and culture that has been ignored for the better part of the last century. My research on English and French on the Prairies can be applicable when teaching informal English or French: as it is spoken, by real people, not formally, as it is written. Most people, when learning a language, want to know how to communicate, make friends, and enter into a society that is closed to them without that language. Learning how people speak is essential to accessing society, not how they write, which can be the more traditional basis of language teaching and learning.
Academic grants are an obvious honour, and I’m very grateful for those, but my greatest honour, honestly, is the opportunity to do and study what I love. I get to work with fantastic students and speakers, and get to talk about what I’m interested in, and this is actually a job! I never forget how lucky I am that I actually love my work.
The way I conceptualize research involves students in a very central role. My current project, in fact, is a result of wanting to involve undergraduate students that we have here at the U of L. I’ve been interested in rural Canadian English since I was in graduate school, but now that I’m in an area where my students are part of the group I want to study, I can engage them in research and it can be relevant to them on a very personal level. I have undergraduate students interviewing family, friends, and neighbours, transcribing, learning how to analyze language data, and learning audio editing, language archiving and acoustic analysis software. They are the local experts, I give them tools, and we learn from each other. I see this blurring of research and teaching as my primary goal, in fact, where the goal is not so much “research” and “teaching”, but rather learning. I guess you could say that U of L students have been pivotal in moving my research into a new direction, where they can play a primordial role.
I would invest in an interdisciplinary centre to further the study and promotion of language on the Canadian Prairies, with labs and equipment for the experimentalists, databases for the corpus experts, and members from a host of related fields to discuss big questions: sociology, history, education, literature, psychology, neurology, speech pathology, computer science, etc., in addition to applied and theoretical linguists. Alberta in particular has a complex history and sociology of various linguistic groups emigrating over the last 100+ years, seeking religious or economic freedom, and it has shaped the language(s) we speak in a particular way, and affects our interactions; sometimes obviously, sometime imperceptibly. These questions are as of yet largely untouched, especially in the Prairies, and in the rural context. The myriad of linguistic groups also means there are particular language complexities which affect how people access services and interact with society. There is little in place with respect to policy and programming in this area, and I envision this hypothetical centre as a blending of pure and applied research, which would also develop policy and programs with respect to language, such as ESL programming for recent immigrants and within the school system, and language maintenance and promotion of First Nations languages on the Prairies such as Blackfoot, Dene and Cree, and other heritage languages spoken on the Prairies such as Ukrainian, Dutch, Low German, etc..