It is a great pleasure to be able to contribute to the Fund Drive for the LINGUIST List, a resource which I have relied on since my MA years, and now during each inaugural seminar meeting encourage students to subscribe to.
My adventure with linguistics officially began with my filing an application to the University of Warsaw’s Institute of English Studies. While up to that point my neighborhood and classrooms could not have been more monolingual and homogenous, I had always been drawn to other languages, even down to deciphering the mysterious ingredients and descriptions printed on foreign food packaging, or checking out translators’ footnotes/endnotes in novels.
My choice of courses at university zeroed in on Theoretical and Applied Linguistics. At the time, I also did a semester of teaching English as a foreign language in my former high school, getting many ideas from my observations of the classroom. I subsequently undertook a PhD under the supervision of Romuald Gozdawa-Gołębiowski, inspired by and expanding upon his Interface Model of comparative/contrastive ISLA. I was assigned to teach Generative Syntax 101, developing activities on the systemic and systematic mechanics of the English language. It was gratifying to see the students grasp the subject matter and ace the final exam, even those who were repeating the class. Parallel to the syntax classes, in my fresher year I again taught full-time at my old high school, which permitted gathering data for my dissertation. In the subsequent years, I focused on writing, with gainful employment restricted to the classes at the university and working as an ELT consultant for television, and a food and wine critic. Though the last of these may appear to be unrelated to linguistics, it will turn out to have more than merely anecdotal significance.
As it happened, after having won several culinary competitions and met the chefs, I interned in the kitchens of Warsaw’s hotels. While there, one of the U.S. chains asked me to help with a series of bilingual cookbooks they were planning to publish. My task was to translate, proofread and edit the content contributed by Polish chefs or other nonnative speakers of English. This assignment required familiarity with not only specialized lexis, but also the preferred structures and discourse conventions of American recipes. I approached the task by compiling a reference corpus, utilizing pre-edited and standardized recipes from a popular cookery software solution. Altogether, four bilingual cookbooks were published, but the process also led to the compilation of enough novel linguistic material to merit a couple of conference presentations and a Q1-listed journal paper. My internship at the Sheraton also paid off in a more tangible form: the contract included a clause whereby I could return to the pastry kitchen to bake a dessert for my PhD viva: a sponge base with roasted hazelnuts, followed by a layer of dark chocolate mousse, stewed Williams pear under a layer of Bourbon vanilla crème, and topped with matching glaze. I prepared the torte the day before the public defense and stored it overnight in the walk-in fridge. Then on the morning of the viva I carried it across the square to our institute, concealed it under the table (the formal green drapery was finally useful), and later served it to the committee and the guests in the audience. It was the icing on the cake, so to speak, of the various activities during my PhD days.
As in any journey, there were many other steps that fell into place naturally. One regret is an unrealized one-year Fulbright Research Grant to go to the Department of Second Language Studies, University of Hawai`i at Mānoa to work under the guidance of Bonnie Schwartz and Bob Bley-Vroman. For personal reasons, it was necessary for me to relinquish the grant and complete the dissertation ahead of time. However, an opportunity to briefly visit that department came one year later, when it hosted the Second Language Research Forum.
After graduating from the PhD program, I took a position as an assistant professor at the University of Warsaw’s Institute of Applied Linguistics. My enjoyment of teaching, learning, research, and interacting with other scholars also led me to look for opportunities to participate in inspiring conferences, which additionally permit catching up with old friends and making new ones in the field. Invitations to give guest lectures, workshops and public outreach talks have provided stimulating forums for exchanging ideas and insights with new audiences, thus far in over 30 countries.
A serendipitous accident in these wanderings took place one September day quite close to home, when walking past the old university library I stumbled upon an announcement for a workshop on language simulations. I walked in and spoke to the organizers, who graciously let me participate. It soon became clear why there had been no notice of the event at my institute: it was being organized and attended almost exclusively by physicists. I managed to understand the gist of most of the presentations, and began to ponder why linguists were not tackling the same research questions and instead seemed to be abandoning the field by walkover. One of my strengths has always been finding points of overlap and connection among different phenomena and disciplines, and a year later I got accepted to a summer school in complexity science organized by Henrik Jeldtoft Jensen and Kim Christensen from Imperial College London’s Department of Mathematics, and then to the European Conference on Complex Systems, thanks to the generosity of the late Dietrich Stauffer. Insights gained from subsequent events and readings led to two successful grant proposals applying the methodology and tools of complexity science to language phenomena. One, a small project carried out together with Łukasz Jonak, investigated the social diffusion of linguistic innovation in a microblogging site. A larger, current project financed by the National Science Centre of Poland and carried out in collaboration with six colleagues uses the tools of computational Social Network Analysis (SNA) to investigate how communication among participants in intensive immersive L2 courses influences their progress. While the importance of social networks has been recognized in the SLA community, especially among study abroad researchers, those works have typically tended to only consider learners’ egocentric networks – without obtaining equivalent reciprocal information – and have predominantly focused on communication with native speakers of the target language. The novelty of our approach lies in filling the gap by reconstructing (maximally) complete, directional weighted graphs of communication among the learners, as well as using a range of computational metrics, measures and algorithms that have been a staple in contemporary network science, though not in L2 research, despite their great utility. The first papers from the project can already be accessed at https://peerlang.ils.uw.edu.pl/publications/. We are currently seeking collaborators, so if anyone reading this is aware of intensive language courses being offered in this or next academic year, please share the information and get in touch with us – some remuneration is foreseen, as well as the potential for joint publications.
I have found it immensely motivating and inspiring to be able to learn about and straddle different disciplines, exchange ideas and work alongside skilled colleagues who bring different competencies to the table. For instance, my projects so far have benefitted from collaboration with a sociologist, psychologists, an anthropologist and ethnographer, computer scientists, a physicist, an epidemiologist, and education researchers. The interdisciplinary character of the research has expanded the scope of its outreach – by now our work has been presented in theoretical and applied linguistics/SLS/TESOL and related departments and conferences, as well as those focused on fields as diverse as education, psychology, sociology, mathematics, statistics, physics, complex systems and networks, robotics, and artificial intelligence.
The theme of this year’s LL Fund Drive is “silver linings”, and it would be impossible to speak of these without mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from the countless human tragedies it has brought, it has meant introducing broad-based changes to teaching and research. In my own case, on the former front the protracted duration of working in the distance mode has been a bit daunting. While academic life had attracted me with its prospect of face-to-face interactions with students and colleagues, the pandemic has meant 1.5 years of talking to the computer screen (with the exception of a few invited mask-to-mask teaching stints abroad during brief re-openings). I have greatly missed daily interactions with friends, colleagues, and students. A major upset was the Presidential Proclamation, thwarting a planned lecture trip to the U.S. this year. One of the many things the pandemic has taught me is to take nothing for granted – and to be resourceful.
On the research side, the project of one of my PhD students suffered in particular: Agnieszka has been investigating how Polish speakers with Down’s syndrome process and comprehend different types of simple vs complex clauses. The study had been planned with in-person sessions in order to ensure a consistent protocol and to accompany the comprehension and reaction-time experiments with tests carried out under the supervision of a qualified psychologist. With the target participants being a vulnerable population, this was no longer possible to carry out during the pandemic, so the study needed to be modified, converted to an online format, and resubmitted to the IRB.
My main study-abroad grant project expectedly also ground to a halt. However, in early March of 2020, even before the school closures were announced in Poland, I was already thinking about the need to investigate how language teachers and learners would cope with this unprecedented and hurried transition to emergency remote instruction. Over the next five weeks, with the help of PhD student and psychology graduate Magda, a comprehensive, custom-made survey was developed and approved by IRB. In addition to the original surveys for language teachers and learners, we elaborated versions for instructors and students in linguistics and related fields, as well as for educators in non-language subjects. Though the questionnaire included 400+ items and would sometimes take upwards of 45 minutes to complete, we endeavored to see the stakeholders as human beings rather than merely in their instructors’ or students’ hats. The approach paid off: responses came in from nearly 9,000 participants from 118 countries (many of them recruited with the help of the LINGUIST List). So far, the data analyses have yielded six papers (shared at http://schoolclosure.ils.uw.edu.pl/publications/), which have merely scratched the surface of this massive dataset. Further analyses are forthcoming; we have also been joined by expert colleagues from other institutions and are looking forward to exciting collaborations.
The shift to the online delivery of language instruction has also opened up opportunities for investigating if and how brick-and-mortar classroom research topics have changed under distance learning. A grant project implemented by Magda and me will investigate the role of grit and complementary personality factors in L2 courses being offered online. (If the readers know someone who is or has just finished learning a second/foreign language online – or face-to-face, for that matter, as there is a corresponding version of the survey – please feel free to share the link to the study: https://L2grit.ils.uw.edu.pl; it has already obtained IRB approval.)
On the academic front, other pandemic-related changes have brought greater opportunities for participating in conferences, seminars, workshops and lectures close and far. It has become easier to move between sessions, or even between events. (Of course, the social component is missing, and events held on the other side of the world require staying up at odd hours.) Apart from open events, I have also been fortunate to join the SLS Colloquia at Indiana University-Bloomington (thanks for keeping me on the roster, Mike!), which I had missed since my sabbatical, the CSTAT Workshops at Michigan State (thanks, Kiyo and Marianne!), as well as advanced data analysis and visualization courses offered by the Institute of English Studies at our own university (thanks, Agnieszka, Karolina, and Breno!). This year also brought several invitations to give keynote talks, lectures, and workshops at events and in places that would have been hard to reach otherwise, especially during the academic year. Another outcome during these months has been the (sometimes reluctant) realization by administrative bodies that many council board meetings and other formalities can be successfully arranged online.
While the future may currently seem a bit less predictable (though life has never been exactly otherwise), at least two things seem certain: first, it is important to not only set goals, but also try to enjoy the path along the way. Second, linguistics is such a fascinating and ever-growing field that it will never keep us bored. I trust that the LINGUIST List will soon be filled again with new, exciting face-to-face events. If this is your wish as well, every donation to the Fund Drive helps keep this invaluable resource running smoothly.
Michał B. Paradowski
Institute of Applied Linguistics,
University of Warsaw