Cantonese (under construction)
Research Overview for a Non-technical Audience
My research focuses on language variation and change particularly in communities that have been understudied by sociolinguists. I often find this a difficult topic to explain. I think this has much to do with common misconceptions that people have about language and about what linguistics is. For example, there is a widespread belief that any given language is uniform and that there are correct and incorrect ways of speaking it. Correct grammar is widely believed to be essential to successful communication. Such assumptions are related to an idea called "prescriptivism" or the belief that language should be spoken in a certain way. There is also a common belief that language change is something negative and something that leads to increased communication problems.
Linguists actually take a scientific or a "descriptive" approach to language rather than a prescriptive one. This means studying how people actually speak rather than on prescribing how they should speak. Decades of research among linguists have shown that there is systematicity and structure in the way people actually speak, often more so than in prescribed ways of speaking. There also turns out to be much variation even in the way people speak the same language. Some of this variation is quite noticeable such as in the way people in the UK speak compared to the way people in the US speak. Some of this variation is less noticeable and more unconscious. For example, many people do not realize that they sometimes do not pronounce the /t/ that appears at the end of words like in "cat" and that whether or not they do can depend on factors such as the topic of conversation, who they are talking to, or even how they view their own identity. Contrary to popular belief, variation is not necessarily an obstacle to effective communication. In fact, variation turns out to be very useful in how we communicate with each other. It is a resource that people use in creating identity and social meaning.
With these basic ideas of linguistics explained, let me explain my research in more detail. My research is focused on how it is exactly that language varies from speaker to speaker. What accounts for these differences as well as similarities? While variation exists at all levels of linguistic structure such as in sentence structure (syntax) and in word structure (morphology), I am primarily interested in variation in sound structure. This relates to the subfields of phonetics and phonology. While phonetics offers a universal way of studying speech sounds regardless of the language being described, phonology is about how the sounds of a given language are systematically organized. Though they are sometimes studied as distinctly different fields, I am very interested in exploring how they are connected and related to each other and in how a better understanding of language in its social context can better illuminate this relationship.
Much work in the field of sociophonetic variation and change has focused on English. One of my goals is to research variation in other languages. Two languages that I am working on are Kizigua, an East African language, and Cantonese, which is often referred to as a dialect of Chinese. Though these two languages are unrelated to each other, I am actually finding some interesting similarities in terms of the kinds of sociolinguistic questions they raise.
More details about my current projects are described in the links below.