Meet the participants 4!

Say hello to Jennifer Thorburn…

My name is Jennifer Thorburn and I’m a Lecturer in Sociolinguistics at Newcastle University. I started at Newcastle in February 2014 after completing my PhD in Canada at Memorial University.

Broadly speaking, my research is concerned with language variation and change. This covers a range of topics, including how social factors such as age, ethnicity, social networks, and sex affect language use; how languages and dialects change over time; and how people feel about and react to the different language varieties in their communities. (A language variety can be a dialect or a language.) Most of my research has been focused on language attitudes and use in Aboriginal communities in northern Canada, but I have also worked on regional dialects of English in North America. I’m currently involved in an AHRC Connected Communities project on language and migration in Northern Ireland. Under the direction of Karen Corrigan, this project explores the experiences of young people who have recently migrated to Northern Ireland and their acquisition of English as a second or third language, important issues in Northern Ireland given the recent increase in immigration to the region and the divisions amongst the major ethnic groups. Part of the project’s mandate is to showcase our results for the public in meaningful and accessible ways, which includes a museum exhibition at the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies in Omagh, Northern Ireland next year. This exhibition is intended to highlight linguistic and cultural diversity and to draw parallels between the experiences of these recent immigrants with the experiences that Irish emigrants had when they relocated to America in the 18th century, which another team member will be analysing over the duration of the grant. I hope that the Research in Translation programme will inspire me to come up with creative and accessible ways to share and discuss these ideas with a non-academic audience, in addition to giving me a stronger foundation in collaborative and interdisciplinary public engagement.

Some linguists are already doing wonderful public outreach in conjunction with sound academic research. One thing they all have in common? Strong relationships with the communities they partner with, based on mutual understanding and respect. These linguists have long-standing working partnerships and friendships with the people who live in their research sites, relationships built not only on academic pursuits but also what Walt Wolfram has described as the principle of linguistic gratuity, which encourages researchers to “pursue positive ways in which they can return linguistic favors to the community” (Wolfram 1993: 227). In fact, one great example of linguists engaging with communities is the North Carolina Language and Life Project (NCLLP). The staff and students involved in the NCLLP, including Walt, have done so much to raise awareness of language-related issues in the state—making documentaries, CDs, museum displays, dialect awareness curriculum, and more. They have shown people the value of linguistic research in ways that are easily accessible to non-academics, by sharing oral histories, showcasing dialect as something to be proud of, and celebrating community members.

Of course, these relationships don’t emerge overnight. It takes time to build trust and develop a working relationship. This can be particularly challenging if you are a postgraduate student with time-sensitive funding. There are a lot of external pressures for doctoral students to finish their dissertations on time, which can make it difficult to build a meaningful relationship with a community, especially if there are members of the community who are mistrustful. When I was doing my dissertation fieldwork, for example, one resident asked me point blank who I was really working for, even thought I had explained what the interview was about. He was the exception to the rule, as most residents were receptive to my presence and volunteered to be interviewed.

Another challenge of public engagement about language is that people often have strong opinions on the subject. It can be difficult to dialogue with people because they have staunch beliefs about what is right and wrong with language. “Kids these days” is a statement you’re probably familiar with, with people lamenting how language is changing (and not for the better). In fact, language change is natural. After all, we don’t sound the way people did in Chaucer’s or Shakespeare’s time. Like any living organism, language needs to change and develop, but this can be a hard notion for people to wrap their heads around. The value of dialect is another topic that sometimes gets pushback. Society has trained us on prescriptive grammars that tell us what is or is not “proper” language. As a sociolinguist, I want people to understand that all dialects are valid, that they have systematic variation and grammatical systems just like the “proper” language, and that everyone speaks a dialect. There can be a lot of resistance to ideas like these because people know about language. But this is also an advantage. People aren’t afraid to express their opinions about language and this can spark a wonderful and productive dialogue between academics and non-academics, as well as more generally.

Language can also have inextirpable links with culture, such that a language is a link to your heritage and traditions. You can see this in many communities around the globe, but my own experiences come from working with Aboriginal groups. In many Aboriginal communities in Canada, the heritage language is endangered, meaning that children are not learning the language from their parents and that it is not used as the day-to-day language of the community. Community elders comment that young people who don’t know the language are losing not just a part of their heritage but also the ability to discuss traditional knowledge. In one of my interviews, I asked someone to describe building a snow house, and it was hard for him to describe the tools that he needed in English because there is no exact counterpart. Without his heritage language (Inuktitut), he didn’t have the necessary vocabulary to describe this traditional practice.

The close relationships language has with culture and identity can be a strength in public engagement work since the community is invested in the outcomes of the research. Residents probably aren’t interested in the frequency with which a particular language feature is used but they do want to hear the oral histories collected in the interview process. Engaging with the community, or community organisations, lets you tailor your research instrument in a way that answers the pressing academic questions while servicing the community you’re working with. I was lucky enough to have an MA supervisor, Marguerite MacKenzie, who has been working with the Innu in Labrador, Canada, for decades. In partnership with the Innu, Marguerite and her team have built dictionaries, translated classroom materials into different dialects, generated booklets of vocabulary, compiled traditional stories, and developed a website about the language that houses many of these resources. Working with Marguerite, and other mentors, has taught me a lot about partnering with communities – my MA thesis was a direct response to a community request – and I look forward to building and maintaining similar ties with interested communities.

All that being said, linguists don’t typically receive training in how to do public engagement. I’ve learned what I know from mentors but there isn’t a formal system in place, which is why I was so excited when I heard about the Research in Translation programme. This programme will help me figure out how to convey information in meaningful and digestible ways, through museum displays and exhibitions. The programme is collaborative and interdisciplinary in nature and I look forward to working with other Early Career Researchers from diverse backgrounds. A collaborative, cross-disciplinary approach is necessary to keep things fresh and accessible and I can’t wait to start brainstorming creative and engaging ways to start conversations with the public about language, identity, and culture. I hope that the Research in Translation programme will educate and inspire me so that I can, in turn, educate and inspire people about language issues.

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