Thursday, May 30, 2013

Little Kids and Language Learning

Even though I spent my early years in a bilingual household-- my grandparents, aunt, father and their friends all spoke Greek and English-- I lost my connection to the Greek language when we moved from the duplex my family shared with my grandparents to our own single-family home in New Jersey just before my 5th birthday. While I may still know a few words here and there, I am by no means fluent. I don't know what it's like to know two languages, let alone use them interchangeably.

Which is why I'm fascinated by my boyfriend's 3-year-old sister (aside from being one of the coolest little kids I know). My boyfriend and his family are Brazilian-- not of Brazilian descent, but actually from Brazil. His sister, though, was born and raised in America. Dear BF is completely fluent in English (even more so than some English-speaking people I know I'd say), and his mother speaks enough to get by, though she is more comfortable with and prefers to speak in Portuguese. His little sister can easily switch between English and Portuguese. 

What amazes me about the little peanut is that she knows when to use which language. She can say something in Portuguese to her mom, and then turn her head and speak to me in English. She'll speak in whichever she feels like to my BF, sometimes jumping between languages from sentence to sentence. Clearly, she is able not just to speak both languages, but to think in both, as well. Dear BF can do this too, and I think he's awesome. His ability to switch spoken and thought languages instantly absolutely amazes me. On the other hand, I somewhat expect an adult to know in what context a particular language is appropriate. Most adults can identify others as able to speak to English or another language. However, I thought that would be beyond the comprehension of a 3 year old.

It leaves me with many questions for those who grew up multilingual or have taught their children to be multilingual: 
  • How do you learn two languages at once?
  • At what point do you start to think in another language?
  • How do you learn to differentiate between multiple languages as you learn them, knowing that you've learned a word in one language versus another?
I'm interested in learning other languages, and I'm wondering what I can learn from little kids about acquiring new vocabularies and their cultural contexts. I bet it would also be useful to building better ways to help first-year writers, who often struggle to acquire disciplinary vocabulary and "general writing skills"/academic language simultaneously.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Prospectus: Lessons from a Struggling Writer

My longtime readers already know that when I began my doctoral program, my intention was today study Victorian literature, specifically Children's literature of the Victorian age. A little less than a semester in, however, I decided to flip to the dark side of Comp/Rhet, and I've loved every minute of it. The problem is that I began my doctoral program with a background in British literature and Children's literature, and because I already had a M.A., I was fast-tracked in my residency requirements. This meant that while I normally would have had three years of full-time classes, I was cut down to one-- nice for my wallet, not so nice for my brain.

Now that I'm at the dissertation phase, I'm struggling. I picked three areas of interest for my comprehensive exams that were somewhat useful, but not directly applicable to my dissertation. So at the moment, I'm forced to play catch up with all of the readings that I missed over two years of lost residency and to figure out how comp/rhet researchers write. I don't blame anyone, and I certainly wouldn't say "I wish I never switched fields." I'm quite happy with what I've chosen, but it has been a challenge.

I've been trying to perfect my prospectus for two semesters now, and it's been a painfully slow process. At one point, I scrapped an entire semester's worth of work and started from scratch. With that said, I am learning some things along the way about how to prepare a prospectus:

  1. A dissertation prospectus is not the same thing as the prospectus for a Master's thesis: This was my first wrong assumption. I figured because I did one well, I would be good at doing the other. Not so. A dissertation prospectus is a much more intensive task. 
  2. Writing more is not necessarily writing well: When I heard "this is not ready for approval," I automatically thought that meant I had to add more texts and explanation. That wasn't the case. What I needed to do (and still need to do) was think more deeply about the issues and focus in on the key points.
  3. How you frame your review of the literature is just as important, if not more important, than the works that you choose to include: As an English major, I know that the nuances of language can change the meaning of a phrase dramatically. I had a hard time seeing the difference between presenting ideas and presenting my ideas about others' work, which was often directly related to the way I wrote about the texts. I also couldn't see that I was supposed to be filtering in the works that directly applied to my work and wanted to talk about everything ever written about my subtopics. Having models is a good start, but learning to make the switch is not automatic. I'm still working on it.
  4. Read other prospectuses and ask questions: I wish I knew more about writing the prospectus itself when I started and more closely analyzed others' prospectuses and literature reviews. I'm not sure I understood the function of the prospectus, other than to tell what research you thought you were doing, but it's more than that. It's about the importance of your contribution, the relevance of your ideas, the rationale behind your methodologies, the subfields that you want to connect with, and how you're speaking into what's already been. Asking questions and reading for models earlier on would have saved me time and energy. 
  5. Own it: I'm still working on this one too. It's hard to remember that the dissertation is about YOUR contribution to the field and about your entrance into the scholarly conversation. 
Now, I'm not saying I've got these things down. Far from it. In fact, my chair had to remind me about just about all of them yesterday. And for all I know, I might still be missing the mark. However, if I realized these 5 things earlier, I probably would have been much further ahead than I am now. Wiuth that said, this whole process has been a learning process, though, and I'm looking forward to working through my ideas more productively and effectively now and taking these strategies to future research.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

End of Days

Every time the semester ends, I feel a little sad. Yes, I'm happy to take a break from school work. Yes, I'm happy to have a break from writing comments on papers for hours. And yes, I'm overjoyed to avoid my 1 - 1 1/2 hour commute each morning and afternoon. But it's hard to watch students go when you grow to like them as people and know how much more you could accomplish with more time.

This year was particularly emotional for me, as I taught at my alma mater. I watched students follow the same paths that I did. It wasn't hard for me to put myself in their shoes. I sat in some of the same classrooms that they sat in. I had some of the same professors that they had. I told stories with my friends in the same cafeteria. I did the same things outside of class in the same residence halls. And I remembered my FYW course, which I did not like very much. I did not want my students to have that experience.

I think, as a whole, I stuck to my values. I embraced the idea that learning should be challenging but fun, and I worked hard to show students how writing can have an impact on their daily lives. I still have some work to do, some things to improve, some new ideas to implement  but looking back, I'm proud of what I did this year. I'm even more proud of what my students did this year.