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Learning language

Who We Are, What We Do: Department of Linguistics

Student Life

By Janet Harron

If you ever find yourself in conversation with a linguist, don’t worry about how you sound.

Linguists are interested in how people speak, but are not interested whatsoever in telling people how to speak.

Speech sounds

That distinction is offered by Department of Linguistics faculty member Dr. Sara Mackenzie, who studies phonology, the patterning of speech sounds.

“One question that the field of phonology addresses is how much of sound patterning in speech is determined by physical aspects of speech production and perception, like the shape of our vocal tract and the nature of the auditory system, and how much is determined by abstract aspects of grammar,” she said.

Growing up as an Anglophone Canadian, Dr. Mackenzie remembers not being particularly good at speaking French. However, she loved learning grammatical rules of the language in school, learning how sentences were formed and what aspects of French and English were the same.

“When you study language scientifically, you realize that all languages and language varieties are incredibly complex, rule-governed systems.” –Dr. Sara Mackenzie

“That way of looking at language as an object of study is what linguists do and I was always more interested in that than in actually getting good at vocabulary and communication,” said the assistant professor. “When you study language scientifically, you realize that all languages and language varieties are incredibly complex, rule-governed systems.”

Who We Are, What We Do

Dr. Mackenzie appears with Dr. Gerard van Herk and student Rebecca Hobbs in Who We Are, What We Do: Linguistics, the latest in a series of teaser videos produced by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and created by multihyphenate writer/videographer/rapper/producer and recent Memorial graduate Timo Sargent.

Ms. Hobbs is a linguistics major in her fourth year who has wanted to become a speech language pathologist for as long as she can remember.

With that as a life goal, it’s no wonder one of her favourite courses to date is Introduction to Language Acquisition with Dr. Yvan Rose, focusing on language development throughout a child’s life.

Renowned department

Memorial boasts the only department of linguistics in Atlantic Canada; the department is also unique due to its emphasis on Aboriginal languages, among them Innu, Inuktitut, Cree and Cayuga. Professor emeritus Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie was recently named the recipient of the Canadian Linguistics Association’s national achievement award for her groundbreaking and significant contributions to the study of Aboriginal languages in Canada.

Another focus of the department is local Newfoundland and Labrador dialects. Retired linguists Drs. Sandra Clarke, professor emerita, and Harold H. Paddock were recently awarded meritorious service medals by Gov. Gen. David Johnson for their work on the Dialect Atlas of Newfoundland and Labrador and for their overall contribution to Canada’s cultural knowledge.

Dr. Gerard van Herk studies language change
Dr. Gerard van Herk studies language change.

‘Really about structure’

Dr. Gerard van Herk, who studies language change and identity, says the biggest misconception about linguistics is that it entails learning lots of languages.

“The same way biologists go to the rain forest to study different species, people come to Newfoundland and Labrador to study language change.” –Dr. Gerard van Herk

“It’s really about the structure of language,” said Dr. van Herk, who is looking forward to teaching Introduction to Language and Gender this fall, which is now a 200-level course, making it more accessible to a wider variety of students.

“The same way biologists go to the rain forest to study different species, people come to Newfoundland and Labrador to study language change.”

For more information, please see the linguistics degree map, visit the department’s website or follow the linguistics department on Facebook.

Who We Are, What We Do is a summer series from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences featuring faculty and students discussing their discipline. The next installment of Who We Are, What We Do: Philosophy and Medieval Studies, launching Aug. 8features faculty members Drs. Joel Maddore and John Geck and philosophy student Kyra Brunt.


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