Featured Linguist: Joanna Błaszczak
How did I become a linguist?
Well, my parents wanted me to become a doctor one day, a woman in a white coat examining patients, using diverse medical instruments, conducting studies. I myself would have rather preferred to work with animals (I love animals, dogs are my favorite ☺). I imagined myself travelling around the world, living in a jungle with wild animals, observing and studying the behavior of chimpanzees and the like. What has become of it? Depending on how you view it, the answer to this question could be: NOTHING, as I became neither a doctor nor an animal researcher or world traveller, or BOTH in some sense. Do you wonder how this latter answer may be sensical at all? I am indeed a world traveller, maybe not (always) in a physical sense, but as a linguist you have the opportunity of travelling around the world through different languages. Originally, I wanted to study the behavior of animals, but studying the structure of languages, trying to understand the principles behind such structures, can be equally fascinating. My parents wanted me to be a doctor. Well, I do not cure sick people but still I have something to do with ‟patients” and medical equipment while conducting psycholinguistic experiments.
But let me go first a few (actually much more than ‟a few” ☺) years back and tell you how all this started.
I think my interest in linguistics originated as early as primary school. While all other pupils hated grammar lessons, I loved them. It was a great fun for me to analyze structures of sentences, determine the grammatical properties of words and their grammatical functions in the sentence. Later I started learning foreign languages (Russian and German), and – while I am absolutely not a talented foreign language learner – I have been fascinated by the clarity of grammar rules governing linguistic structures ever since. Being the finalist of a German language competition (olympiad), I had an opportunity to study abroad, concretely at the Humboldt University of Berlin. There, my interest in linguistics gradually grew even more. (To be honest, I also studied economics, I also did some law at the Free University of Berlin, but these subjects, while surely being interesting and useful, could not diminish my bigger interests in language and scientific work.) My first teachers at the Humboldt University (Prof. Manfred Bierwisch, Prof. Ewald Lang, Prof. Norbert Fries, Prof. Karin Donhauser) showed me how diverse the study of language can be: from lexical and compositional semantics, through syntactic structures to language change. During various linguistic summer schools I’ve got more of that. The young teachers there (Daniel Büring, Christopher Wilder, Christopher Piñón, Lea Nash, Marcel den Dikken, Maaike Schoorlemmer, Tracy A. Hall, David Adger, to mention a few) fascinated me with their cool ideas and their vast knowledge, but what fascinated me even more was generative grammar, a framework with clear predictions which can be corroborated or falsified. I think around that time I started to think or even to wish to become one day one of these scholars. And indeed my wish came true. Of course not immediately ☺, but a Master’s thesis, a Ph.D. thesis and a Habilitation thesis later, here I am: a linguist. As Prof. Gisbert Fanselow, my boss at the University of Potsdam, once said about me, I have always started my research (be it for the MA thesis, the PhD or the Habilitation theses) with a small set of empirical data, questioned the assumptions made for them, by providing evidence or counterevidence from all possible angles (also including language acquisition, diachrony, typology etc.), then formulating a new view and integrating new findings into a consistent theoretical picture. This is what I love most: deriving far-reaching theoretical insights about the structure of grammar from the analysis of a well-defined, small empirical domain. By doing this, I feel like a detective and nobody would say that detective work is not interesting. ☺
My primary linguistic interest was and still is syntax, minimalist theory, semantics, and syntax-semantics interface. By and by this interest has broadened to include typology, psycholinguistics, language teaching, and sociolinguistics as well. My work in various projects at the University of Potsdam and also at the Centre for General Linguistics (ZAS) in Berlin has certainly contributed to that. The projects I was involved in were diverse and ranged from, for example, developing the annotation scheme for the morphological and syntactic aspects of the corpora of the Collaborative Research Centre 632 in Potsdam through working on a book about different languages spoken in Germany’s schools as a help for teachers who have pupils in their classrooms with native languages other than German (a ZAS project under the leadership of Prof. Manfred Krifka) to studying the relationship between national identity and bilingualism (a joint project with Dr Marzena Żygis from ZAS).
Where I am now? Since 2008 I have been an Associate Professor at the University of Wrocław in Poland, a place with a good generative grammar tradition (initiated among others by Prof. Bożena Rozwadowska). There I am Head of the Center for Experimental Research on Natural Language, supervising and coordinating various psycholinguistics projects. With the support of the Foundation for Polish Science (FNP) and the National Science Centre, Poland (NCN) it was possible to obtain additional grants for setting up a neurolinguistic laboratory with the EEG equipment and an eyetracking laboratory. In addition, I managed to establish a publishing house The Center for General and Comparative Linguistics, officially accepted by the National Library of Poland, which publishes a linguistic (book) series Generative Linguistics in Wrocław (GLiW) and, in cooperation with De Gruyter Open, an online, open-access, peer-reviewed journal Questions and Answers in Linguistics (QAL). These publications offer a forum for linguistic discussions on various topics, and more importantly, they give especially young researchers the opportunity to present their work. And thanks to the Linguist List, more and more people know about us. Also thanks to the Linguist List, more and more interested students contact us as they want to apply for our new Master Programme in Linguistics (ETHEL – Empirical and Theoretical Linguistics), a programme, as the name suggests, which combines theoretical linguistics with empirical issues, giving the students the opportunity to study, next to theoretical syntax, semantics, etc. also statistics, corpus linguistics, psycho- and neurolinguistics, and to conduct their own experiments. Needless to say, our laboratories and the publishing house offer another possibility of practical training.
My colleagues, dr Dorota Klimek-Jankowska, dr Barbara Tomaszewicz, dr Anna Czypionka and Piotr Gulgowski (PhD student) and I currently work on decomposition of linguistic categories in the brain, nominalizations, eventualities (FNP project), number and quantification in natural language (NCN project). We cooperate with researchers from Germany (Konstanz University, Heidelberg University and the Humboldt University of Berlin), and invite scholars from various places of the world: from neighboring countries (Germany and the Czech Republic), through other European countries (the Netherlands, Spain, France, Italy, UK, etc.) to Northern America (Canada and USA). Here once again it becomes apparent that also as a linguist you are a world traveller: you are travelling to the world (by going to conferences or workshops) but the world is also coming to you (as participants in conferences organized by you, as guest researchers working with you on joint projects, etc.). And – needless to say – nothing of this would be possible without the help of the Linguist List. A big ‘Thank you’ to all the people engaged in the Linguist List, for your great and extremely helpful work!
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