From language enthusiast to UCLA linguistics PhD student

by Tom Trigg (University of California)

When I applied for my undergraduate studies, I was sure that linguistics would take secondary place to French, having originally applied for a joint honours French & Linguistics degree. However, two months before I enrolled at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), I made the somewhat crazy decision to switch to a single honours BA in Linguistics, which turned out to be the best decision. I ended up falling in love with the subject and deciding to continue my studies through to postgraduate level. My time during my undergraduate studies solidified a profound interest in the underlying facets of language structure, and culminated in an undergraduate thesis investigating case variation in Finnish. During my second year, I was determined that pursuing further education in linguistics was absolutely what I wanted to do, so I decided to apply to QMUL once again for an MA in linguistics.

It goes without saying that my MA would have been financially impossible without the PhilSoc’s Master’s Bursary. It ensured I could dedicate all my time to my MA. Graduating in December 2019, I was able to explore many more aspects of linguistics during my postgraduate studies. This included a joint project investigating the nature of so-called pluralia tantum (nouns which only have a singular form: “trousers”, “groceries” etc.). Our work, which is still ongoing, was presented at the Linguistics and English Language Postgraduate Conference (LELPGC) at the University of Edinburgh, and at the general meeting of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain (LAGB) at QMUL. I was also able to participate in the London Semantics Day (LSD) at QMUL, presenting some preliminary work which made up part of my MA thesis. My thesis was ultimately focused on investigating the nature of Finnish reflexives. I investigated and analysed Finnish anaphors (words like “himself”) and logophors (pronouns which may only refer back to an attitude holder/speaker). Given the breadth of this topic, it is an area which I very much hope to return to. Throughout my MA studies, I realised that taking part in serious research was what I wanted to do with my career. I likewise found a passion for research which relies on cross-linguistic comparison and elicitation with native speakers.

Knowing that my research interests lie firmly within the realm of formal linguistics, particularly syntax and semantics, and their interface, I applied to a number of doctoral programs in both the US and UK. I was lucky to be offered a place on the linguistics graduate program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which I started in September 2019. I’ve since had the opportunity to undertake a number of other projects, including: (i) investigating Finnish wh-movement (which forms wh-questions like “who did you see?”); and (ii) probing the syntax/semantics of British English so-called fuck-inversion (constructions like “Is John a nice guy?” “Is he fuck!”. Sailor, Craig. 2017. ‘Negative inversion without negation: On fuck-inversion in British English.’ In Cambridge Occasional Papers in Linguistics (COPiL) 10: 88-110.). Needless to say, my ability to pursue my education at Master’s level was aided, in no small part, by the Master’s Bursary. Without this, it would be unlikely that I would have been able to continue my studies in a doctoral program. So for that, I am incredibly grateful to PhilSoc for allowing me to pursue my passion.

Russian in Plain English: amazing things start with a timid first step

by Natalia V. Parker (University of Leeds)

Having taught Russian to adults in the UK for over 20 years, I most definitely did not plan a postgraduate researcher career. Living in rural Somerset, I was enjoying helping my learners discover my mother tongue and looking for ways of making it easier for them to understand how Russian works. Over the years, this search grew into my own independent research into specifics of the acquisition of Russian by English speaking beginners, which resulted in a new approach to teaching Russian. My students encouraged me to see whether I could make this methodology work for other learners of Russian and I decided to try testing it within some kind of research project.

The difficulty was that language teaching methodologies for Russian is an extremely under-researched topic in the UK. The Russianists I approached were mainly interested in Russian literature, history, politics, music, rather than language teaching methodologies, and language teaching methodologists were not Russianists: it took me over a year to find an academic who was interested in what I was doing. The other difficulty was that, having a teenage daughter and no full time employment, I was not able to fund my project in any shape or form. Nearly a hundred emails, letters and applications later, I suddenly received an email from the British Philological Society, suggesting that I could possibly apply for your Masters bursary. Receiving that bursary was so much more than financial support – it made me realize that somebody believed in the potential of my project and gave me hope that I am not on my own in striving to promote the learning of Russian.

The bursary enabled me to run my first experiment on phonological acquisition, teaching Russian pronunciation (including notorious Russian stress) to complete beginners. Its results have not only confirmed the effectiveness of my teaching approach but have led to identifying the differences in stress making by Russian and English speakers, crucial for stress acquisition, which have not been covered in the research literature to date. These findings have been presented at the BASEES (British Association for Slavonic and East European Languages), AATSEEL (American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages) conferences and SLS (Slavic Linguistic Society) meeting in Potsdam, among others. My article, based on this investigation, is under review in SEEJ (Slavic and East European Journal, published in US).

Furthermore, after two years of numerous reviews and active correspondence, Routledge accepted my publishing proposal for a beginners’ textbook, Russian in Plain English, which is due to come out in May. The book employs recent findings in language pedagogy, Second Language Acquisition and Psycholinguistics, language processing in particular, and is anything but traditional. It is not a course book, but rather a learner-friendly starter, that helps learners understand the logic behind Russian phonological and grammar systems, as well as acquire solid reading and speaking skills. More information about the book can be found here.

The book is really why I started all this, though my research now has gone further. I was asked to develop my methodology further through a PhD. I am now in the second year of my PhD at Leeds, fully funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (through White Rose College of Arts and Humanities). My current study is investigating the acquisition of the Russian inflection system by English speakers, and how to make language instruction more processable for learners.

This might not have happened if my first timid step was not supported by your MA bursary four years ago. Thank you for helping me take it.