Interview with American law professor, linguist and author, Noah Feldman

Interview with American linguist and author Alyssa Kermad

E X C L U S I V E    I N T E R V I E W

Kevin  



Alyssa

The interviewer:  Kevin Hirschi, Ph.D.
Candidate in Applied Linguistics
at Northern Arizona University

 


The interviewee: Alyssa Kermad, Ph,D.
Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics and TESOL at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

Northern_Arizona_University_seal.svg

 

Pomona

Kevin Hirschi is a Ph.D. candidate (and presidential fellow) in the Applied Linguistics program at Northern Arizona University where he has taught French and English.  He is currently studying factors that impact success of Mobile-Assisted Pronunciation Training for adult immigrant ESL communities, international students, and foreign language students.  Kevin has served in the Kyrgyz Republic as a Peace Corps Volunteer English teacher where he taught university students critical thinking skills and trained teachers in communicative teaching approaches.  After receiving his M.A. in Teaching English as Second Language (MA-TESL), Kevin served as a U.S. English Language Fellow in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he developed programs in academic writing and taught diverse courses ranging from American studies to English Pronunciation and research methods.  Kevin speaks English, French, Russian, Kyrgyz, Spanish, German, and Turkish.

 

 

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Alyssa Kermad is an assistant professor of Applied Linguistics and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.  Her research interests are in second language speech and pronunciation, speech perception, prosody and pragmatics, second language acquisition, individual differences, and speech assessment.  

 

Applied linguistics
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Kevin thumnailWhat inspired you to study French and linguistics?



Alyssa thumbnailI knew from a really young age that I wanted to work with language.  I was in about the 5th grade when my teacher introduced a pen pal program.  For $1, we could select one country and be sent the name/address of someone who would like to write letters to us from that specific country.  I chose about five pen pals from five different countries.  While not all of them wrote back to me, my pen pal from Japan responded immediately.  We became very close through the back-and-forth exchange of our letters, souvenirs, food, and so on.  We became so close that she came to the U.S. to visit me, and I went to Japan to visit her when I was just 14 years old.  The relationship that we created led her to come to the U.S. to finish high school with me!  It was almost surreal that a simple pen pal program blossomed into a real-life friendship.  I watched her study into the early hours of the morning, not only learning the material, but learning it in her second language.  This is when I knew that I wanted to work with language learners like her, but not only that, I wanted to learn languages too.  I began studying Japanese, learning how to read and write katakana, hiragana, and some kanji characters.  Once in college, I started learning French while at the same time I began to specialize in English, linguistics, and TESOL.  After I finished my B.A. at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, I joined the Teaching Assistant Program in France run by the French Ministry of Education which brought me to France for two academic years as an assistante de langue.  The first year I was placed in Troyes at une école primaire and the second year I was placed in Reims at un lycée technique.  Naturally being immersed in the language and the culture, my French improved to the point where I was able to pass B2 and C1 levels of French proficiency tests.  Although I took a break from teaching in France to complete my M.A., I went back to France after the degree was complete and taught again in Reims, but this time at the university level.  My teaching experiences in France culminated in the realization that I wanted to pursue research in applied linguistics, namely second language speech and pronunciation.  I found it fascinating that there was such great variability in pronunciation performance among learners, and I wanted to discover what accounted for that variability.  This inspired my dissertation which was on individual differences and pronunciation outcomes. 


Kevin thumnailHow do you feel that a knowledge of language and linguistics helps address problems in the real world?


Alyssa thumbnailThis is a really important question.  In fact, in my undergraduate “Introduction to Linguistics” classes, I start off by having students think about the importance of language (spoken, written, sign, non-verbal, etc.) by way of imagining the world, or even a single day, without it.  This tends to bring an eye-opening awareness that language is everywhere.  It is the very core of what makes us human and what allows us to get an education, carry out our duties at our jobs, go home and have a conversation with our loved ones, read and comprehend a good book, watch a film, write an email, read a text, navigate through an airport, give a speech, and so on and so forth. 

Linguistic knowledge has been crucial to so many real-world areas such as language learning, language teaching, language policy, dialect coaching, translation, interpretation, marketing, business, international affairs, government, computer science, law, medicine, speech language pathology, and on and on.  Because language is at the core of what we do, linguistic knowledge has played immense roles in areas outside of language learning, teaching, and research.  A knowledge of linguistics provides a type of “super power” for tackling issues, problems, and controversies in the world around us.  It enables us to think systematically about a means toward an end.


Kevin thumnailHow has learning French helped you in your professional examples?


Alyssa thumbnailI draw on my knowledge of French quite a bit when I am giving my students examples of how other languages do things.  For example, French provides great examples of the formal vous vs tu , which many of my Spanish-speaking students can relate to with usted vs tú.  I draw on French to illustrate gendered nouns, which English does not have.  French is also great for illustrating phonetic issues that come up for anglophone speakers of French, such as distinguishing between dessus (above) and dessous (below).  It also helps to have some familiarity with how French varies from speech community to speech community within regional France, within Europe, and inter-continentally.  Furthermore, French verlan is an extremely fascinating linguistic system.  I didn’t learn verlan at school likely because it wasn’t perceived as “correct,” but once I arrived in France, I heard it everywhere—on the streets, in my classrooms, in film, in music, and in conversation.  Verlan goes far beyond the simple inversing of syllable structure, as words in verlan also undergo sound changes, spelling changes, and meaning changes.  Furthermore, one cannot simply inverse any word—these words are established in and by the speech community.  This goes to show that linguistic variation is not simply random use of bad language—it’s rule governed and systematic and part of what makes a living language. 


Kevin thumnailLiving in the western US, there’s a lot of Spanish around. What is the value of learning French if you are from the West Coast or Southwest?

Alyssa thumbnailSouthern California is a linguistic ratatouille.  I love that I can go out and hear multiple different languages spoken around me.  There is a good number of Francophones in Southern California, but Spanish is most widely spoken in this area.  Considering its ties to Latin, knowing French definitely makes learning Spanish easier.  While my proficiency in Spanish is still at a beginner’s level, I am trying to learn more.  Oftentimes, I can draw on my knowledge of French to produce and comprehend words in Spanish. 


Kevin thumnailEnglish has dominated the globe as the lingua franca. What does this mean for Americans and what does it mean for the language learning classroom?

Alyssa thumbnailThe domination of English as a lingua franca carries both positive and negative implications for Americans.  On the positive end, the need for English language teachers across the globe is great; therefore, fields of study such as TESOL, language studies, applied linguistics, education, etc. can carve out a trajectory which leads Americans abroad to become global citizens of other countries, teaching English in different contexts.  Living and working abroad naturally fosters multilingualism, cultural awareness, and cross-cultural relations with diverse communities.  We can share our culture with others while learning about other ways of going about communication, life, and living.  On the other end of the lingua franca spectrum is the English-only comfort zone.  Americans can largely get by with only knowing English both at home and in travel.  However, this mentality places the burden of communication on others to know and communicate our language.  It can also give others the impression that English is more important than other languages, even if that is not our intention.  I encourage Americans to learn even some words of other languages, especially when travelling.  There is something so personal and relatable when one is able to utter sounds to create words which are not in our native language but which are meaningful to others.  Knowing additional languages, even at a beginner’s level, ultimately widens the net of how, when, where, and with whom we can communicate in this large global network.  We are able to make connections with people that may not have been previously possible.  Bi/multilingualism is one way to engage in global citizenship and demonstrate interest in the world around us, the cultures around us, the people around us, and the texts around us. 

Kevin thumnailWhat reforms should the US make? What would be the impact of those changes?


Alyssa thumbnailIn terms of language policy, I firmly believe that we as a country in the United States need to give more priority to language learning at an earlier age.  Not only that, but we need to recognize the value of bi/multilingualism and consider this as an asset.  If we look at the models from the rest of the world, Europe for example, students begin learning their first foreign language from a young age and then add an additional foreign language later on.  Anecdotally speaking, I was teaching English in France to primary school children who would likely later go on to add a third foreign language!  Yet due to what I think is the combined result of anglocentrism and English as a lingua franca, formal language learning is not prioritized at a young age in the U.S.  If we could become organized as a nation to give more priority to language learning from a younger age, the effect would be far-reaching, leading not only to a greater degree and appreciation of bi/multilingualism but also to a greater awareness of other cultures and more wide-spread opportunities.   Furthermore, this open-mindedness fosters linguistic, cultural, and geographical awareness.   

Kevin thumnailWe know that accented English (both for learners and minorities) results in real world social issues. Why do you think that accent discrimination is different from other types of discrimination?

Alyssa thumbnailAccent discrimination is different from other types of discrimination for several reasons, but mostly because it’s not perceived as discrimination and oftentimes goes silently undetected.  However, its effects on the speaker are far-reaching.  Much of this has to do with the ideology of what is “standard” or “expected” in a language, and then anything that deviates is subject to stigmatization.  However, even this idea of deviation is relative and varies from person to person.  One can make judgments about the way someone talks assuming that it is somehow rationalized through this dichotomized standard/non-standard ideology or that it’s not a form of discrimination because it is “only” language.  We all know this is the farthest from the truth.  Language varieties are deeply rooted in one’s identity, one’s culture, one’s ethnicity, one’s region, and one’s sense of belonging.  Therefore, linguistic discrimination is just as serious as other types of discrimination.  A well-known quote from Rosina Lippi-Green (2012) states, “Accent discrimination can be found everywhere in our daily lives.  In fact, such behavior is so commonly accepted, so widely perceived as appropriate, that it must be seen as the last back door to discrimination.  And the door stands wide open” (p. 74).  When Lippi-Green wrote this in 2012, the back door stood wide open, and even today in 2021, it door still stands wide open. 


Kevin thumnailDo you foresee a day when accent discrimination is a thing of the past? What would get us there?


Alyssa thumbnailAccent discrimination happens all across the world, but I do see a day when people are more aware of accent discrimination.  Even if we have a long way to go, progress is being made, research is being done, outreaches are being performed.  I think that we all have to do our part, not only in spreading this awareness but also by trying to be better conversationalists.  We have to let people know that having an accent does not make anyone less human.  In fact, what people are surprised to find out is that everyone has an accent!  We need to focus on successful communication, rather than differences in communication.  With respect to English and its role as a lingua franca, we have to keep in mind that native English speakers are in the minority; there are currently more non-native English speakers of English than native English speakers.  Therefore, the standards and ideals are so far out of touch with reality.  Even within our own language of (American) English, we have to be accepting of different varieties which are not considered “standard,” as every variety is equally complex and systematic as the other.  Furthermore, we can do our part in being better listeners.  People would be surprised to discover that if they stopped judging someone on the way they spoke, they would actually understand them better!

Kevin thumnailGiven the issues with the “where are you from” question, how do we balance respecting people’s identities while showing genuine interest in people’s backgrounds and helping them keep their diversity?

Alyssa thumbnailThe “where are you from?” question is tricky.  Because humans notice accented speech in less than one second, we are quick to assign labels to speakers who sound different from ourselves.  However, imagine that a second language English speaker living in the U.S. starts their day and stops to grab a coffee.  They order the coffee, and they get asked “where are you from?”  They then run by the post office to send a letter and get asked “where are you from?”  They head to work and make a phone call when someone quickly detects their accent and asks “where are you from?”  These questions can quickly marginalize someone when all they want to do is buy a coffee, send a letter, or make a phone call.  We have to consider that accented speakers may be actively trying to integrate into a given speech community.  On the other hand, the “where are you from question” can be asked out of genuine interest or to relate to someone personally.  It can be used to open a discussion of mutual interest in travelling, language learning, culture, and so on.  My advice would be to save the “where are you from?” question for interpersonal bridge-building or when your good intentions can be perceived as good intentions.

  Where  

 

Kevin thumnailI see that you and your coauthors have Second Language Prosody and Computer Modeling coming out soon. Can you tell us more about it? 

Alyssa thumbnailDr. Okim Kang (Northern Arizona University), Dr. David Johnson (University of Kansas), and I have written Second Language Prosody and Computer Modeling, a reference book which will be published by Routledge in the near future.  This is a collaborative effort between two applied linguistics (myself and Dr. Kang) and one computer scientist (Dr. Johnson).  The book is set up into three overarching parts.  Part I provides the linguistic foundation for computer modeling.  It begins by defining prosody and tracing the historical development of prosodic frameworks throughout the years.  We then give detailed attention to two major frameworks commonly used to describe prosody today.  Following, we lay out the many ways that speech properties have been calculated manually by humans in efforts to show how computers can become trained.  Part II, takes the foundational knowledge from Part I and applies it to computer modeling processes.  For example, we discuss the process of breaking continuous human speech into syllables automatically with computer algorithms.  This is followed by an explanation of how computer models have derived prosodic properties through time.  This part ends with a comparison of several computer models for automatically scoring oral proficiency and intelligibility from suprasegmental measures of speech.  Finally, Part III of our book explores directions for future research and future applications of prosody models. 

Okim Kang

David Johnson

Dr. Okim Kang Dr. David Johnson

References :

Kang, O., Johnson, D., & Kermad, A. (forthcoming). Second language prosody and computer modeling. Routledge—Taylor & Francis.

Lippi-Green, R. (2012). English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge

10 alternatives to 'Where are you from?'

 

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