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  • Chara Triantafyllidou

Building Bridges: Strands Between Science and Society


A map view of Cambridge. Photo credit: the author.

“I have no idea what will connect with me, or where, or what kind of connection will form. And so, rather than wait in a passive haze, I desire to act with purpose and to cherish the encounters that result from my choices.”

― Hideo Kojima, The Creative Gene


“You are a… what?”


“A psycholinguist.”


“And what does a psycholinguist do?”


Let me explain. Psycholinguistics is a relatively new field; you will not find any mention of it in works before 1935, nor will you hear of any famous psycholinguists from ancient times. It is inherently interdisciplinary in nature, bridging the theory of linguistics with the experimental practises and theory of psychology, and, therefore, bringing linguistics to labs and the real world. For me, the real world is the schools I work with, where I carry out eye-tracking experiments with children. I am interested in the reading abilities of pupils who speak English as an Additional Language (EAL) compared to their monolingual peers. 



The eye-tracking method. Photo credit: the author.

Eye-tracking is a popular method in psycholinguistics, which shows us how language processing works in real-time. Fixations in reading, for example, point us to how people deal with ambiguity in complex sentences. However, being a generally under-researched group, language processing in EAL pupils remains largely unexplored. In my exploration of components that may impact reading skills of EAL pupils, I consider both factors that relate closely to language, such as grammar and vocabulary, as well as ecological factors, such as reading habits, language background, and socioeconomic status. My aim is to tap into the gravity of each factor and to better understand what explains the reading outcomes of EAL pupils, who often underperform in reading comprehension compared to pupils who speak English as their first language. If you are wondering why this is important in the real world, take a look at this video, where I talk about the UK language crisis and the importance of meaningfully inclusive education.


"In summary, I am a linguist using methods from psychology and collecting data in educational institutions in order to put together a thesis that discusses language processing in bilingualism and which will hopefully bring forward implications on language learning and instruction." 

This level of interdisciplinary work is truly fascinating. The first year of my PhD involved a lot of reading, the second year a lot of experiment building, and the third year consists mostly of me being in the field, interacting with pupils every day, and arranging my eye-tracking set up in a new room every few days or weeks. Interdisciplinarity extends beyond merging the names of different disciplines: it extends to bridging entire research fields and their methodologies, common practises, limitations, and it ultimately brings together scientists and other societal institutions in education, policy-making, government, and beyond. 


"But why is this level of interdisciplinary work beneficial or even necessary in any way?"

Investigating language processing in under-researched populations can help us answer lingering questions that educators have had for years and explain data on EAL children’s reading comprehension abilities that have existed for at least the past two decades. On a theoretical level, it can help us develop new models of reading and literacy acquisition or expand on existing ones by teasing apart the elements that influence reading comprehension and determining interactions between different factors. On a practical level, expanding our knowledge of language processing in bilingual children can inform language teaching practise and policy-making for inclusive education. Finally, language processing studies with pupils can unearth hidden and previously undiagnosed reading difficulties in typically developing children, therefore assisting in the development of updated diagnostic tools for dyslexia.


"If this interdisciplinary approach has so many direct and indirect benefits, why is it not conducted more widely? Are there specific complications involved?"

Doing any kind of research with vulnerable populations -in this case, children- brings forward a list of hurdles: ethical considerations and the bureaucracy of research ethics applications, access to populations, and duration of testing. While navigating ethics is a procedure one might get acclimatised to fairly quickly, access to vulnerable populations remains challenging and unpredictable, especially when taking into account the delicate balance between recruitment bias and recruitment difficulty. In the case of EAL pupils, running a study in a lab essentially excludes all children whose parents do not have the time, resources, and transport means to bring them to our lab. This would have implications for the socioeconomic background of the children participating in the study, thus contradicting in principle one of the primary goals of the research project in the first place.

 

The antidote to this issue is to minimise recruitment bias by conducting research in schools. In turn, this recruitment choice introduces new obstacles: access to schools and parental consent. To summarise the magnitude of this difficulty, out of approximately 160 schools that have been contacted so far, only four have agreed to participate in the study. In each of these schools, about three rounds of recruitment are required to engage parents and obtain their consent. Furthermore, to obtain data points on a range of components that may influence reading comprehension, multiple testing sessions are required, hence prolonging data collection and reducing the sample size, given the finiteness of PhD research projects. 



Eye-tracking in progress. Photo credit: the author.
"So, is it worth it?"

Is it worth bridging scientific disciplines to delve into research questions that remain unanswered for decades? Yes - but it comes at a cost.


The cost, however, also comes with valuable experience. Witnessing the reality of post-pandemic schools can teach us, psycholinguists, what society really needs from us and where our research should aim. The undeniable impact of the pandemic on educational systems across the globe is still evident in the daily school reality. “Schools are overwhelmed, teachers are overworked, schools are underfunded” -are all phrases that linger in school corridors, offices, as well as University labs while they try to recruit pupils and fail desperately. Teachers are inundated with tasks beyond their schedules, pupils are behind not only on curricula, but also on social interactions and the emotional maturity that comes with them, and a researcher with an eye-tracker will not address any of these issues effectively.


Valuable experience stems not only from the post-pandemic school hardships, but from the reality in the schools. Linguists have extensively engaged with educational institutions and have made leaps in the fields of language processing and learning through those collaborations. An example of such a collaboration is the MultiLiLa Project which took place in India and tapped into multilingualism, cognitive skills, issues in English-Medium Instruction, and the impact of low socio-economic status on language development. The collaboration continues beyond this project and Cambridge psycholinguists are currently involved in developing interventions for pupils in India. Additionally, they have documented the challenges involved in their interdisciplinary work, which serves as a valuable guide for researchers and adds a refreshingly realistic touch to what goes into making such work possible.


Importantly, we should always keep in mind that, while us linguists have our own (noble) scientific pursuits and teachers have the best interests of their pupils in mind -the two can certainly be linked. It is possible to take research that relates to the reality of education beyond education departments and bring it to linguistics, psychology, and social sciences. However, this work requires collaboration, which is precisely why it is now more important than ever to bring together the creative minds behind science and the needs of real life in under-researched fields. Curiosity, ambition, and a commitment to improving lives by solving problems can and should be the strand that connects us all.


A map view of the field-work spots. Photo credit: the author.
"And what stops us?"

Interdisciplinarity looks great on paper, but its boundaries are robust and usually invisible in the real world outside of academia. Each discipline comes with a set of standards, common practises, and interests, that have been developed on the basis of massive bodies of research and publications. The above functions as a blueprint for every new researcher entering a field and needing reassurance that their research methods are appropriate. Due to being so entrenched and deeply rooted, the blueprints gradually turn into a force of habit. When participating in MRI studies that involve any level of language processing, my hand extends to the pen I would use to fill out a language background questionnaire -but in most departments, other than linguistics, the questionnaire is not there. Similarly, teachers ask me if I record the type of curriculum used by each school in my research and psychologists wonder if I use a test for working memory or executive functions. All of the above are valid comments and would have been excellent additions to my study but, at the end of the day, every researcher still has to deal with that delicate balance between research value and difficulty. In a research battery that already takes about three hours to complete for each participant, there were aspects that had to be abandoned -and the ones that remained are those that relate closest to the department I am based in. After all, I am going to earn a PhD in Linguistics at the end of this journey -not in Psychology, not in Education, and certainly not in Interdisciplinarity.


Apart from scientific norms, research is shaped by the broader ways in which academia works. Research is a career built upon funding and publishing, with a constant push and pull between the two. By definition, grant applications and journal publications force research into boxes based on discipline, department, or subfield. Although there is a growing interest in interdisciplinary work and some institutions prioritise cutting-edge interdisciplinary work, the reality is that every researcher has to consider what is “fundable” and “publishable” in order to survive in the academic job market and progress upwards on the steep academic ladder. Beyond bureaucratic limitations, interdisciplinarity comes with a set of requirements in terms of peer review, facilities, and the - sometimes impossible - transcendence of physical boundaries between different faculties. 


Allow me to present you with an example from my life in Cambridge. My lab is based in the English Faculty Building, while the Phonetics lab is based in a different building which, despite being on the same site, remains a building I have no reason to visit unless I have to work in that lab. Within the same department, there exist researchers with overlapping interests, similar questions, and perhaps comparable goals and ambitions, who never get to meet. Psychologists who may also work on language processing are based in a whole different site, a 20-minute walk away from ours, while researchers working on Cognition and Brain Sciences have their own building, away from both of us. Finally, the Education Department is quite literally on the other side of Cambridge. Our paths rarely cross and only do so on extremely planned occasions, such as symposia -when the research has already been approved, planned, carried out, and often published. 


Bridging disciplines, while beneficial in principle, presents us with a number of challenges which outdate individual academics or even departments, especially in institutions with long histories that come with listed buildings. The rigidness of academic departments, and the disciplines associated with each, does not only affect early-career researchers; it also limits the creativity of senior academics who apply for grants to carry out large-scale collaborative research. Admittedly, planning and executing multi-faceted research projects to serve social good while also serving the needs of the researchers involved, fulfilling the requirements of funding bodies, and adhering to the regulations of faculties and labs is an extremely intricate task. As a result, the “weight” of innovation and interdisciplinarity often inevitably falls on the new generation of researchers.


Following the dissociation induced as a by-product of the pandemic, researchers seek and create now, even more so than before, opportunities to engage with peers from various fields, to exchange knowledge, bounce back ideas, and pursue paths of collaboration that surpasses the invisible boundaries of academic institutions. We acknowledge that the collaborative creation of shared knowledge and its dissemination is inherently an act of liberation in a world that puts paywalls to education. Our bridges with society might be unconventional; we teach in festivals, we show up with equipment at schools, we travel to refugee camps, and, eventually, we draw new pathways, hoping that, one day, they shall all connect.


The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect those of the Editorial Board, the Scholars’ Council, the Gates Cambridge Trust or the University of Cambridge.

 

Chara ['21] is a linguist working on the reading abilities of pupils who speak English as an additional language (EAL), with a focus on prosodic skills.




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