Real Scientists is in Virginia, USA this week with Dr Ann Aly (@AnnMAlyy), polyglot extraordinaire and manager of the Workshops and Certification Program at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Her research has included work on language acquisition, including second (and third) languages. We chatted (in English) about Dr Aly’s STEM journey so far.
What got you into linguistics?
After I suffered an injury as an orchestral musician in undergrad, I started looking into other fields of study. During my last semester, I ended up in a linguistics class and learned that my musical training made me super good at phonetics! I then transitioned to linguistics for my Master’s and PhD where I was introduced to social science, language education, and research.
What do you want the public/the twittersphere to know about your work?
How relevant it is to the lives of everyone (we all have to communicate!) and how much language is always changing. There’s still so much to learn about how humans communicate, acquire languages, and how languages change over time. There are also a lot of myths when it comes to language learning that us linguists hope our research can debunk (for example, you CAN still learn a language in adulthood and learning two languages as a baby does NOT confuse you).
We all use language and make a lot of decisions based on language, whether it’s personal, professional, or familial. I hope that my work and the work of others can show that all language varieties and speech styles (even slang!) are legitimate and appropriate in many contexts. Also, I hope that word gets out that although learning additional languages is hard, it’s 1) possible at any age and 2) likely not going to result in “perfection”, so don’t be hard on yourselves! People should feel proud of how they speak and empowered to communicate in the way that is maximally effective for them and their life.Well, I translate my neighborhood’s newspaper from English to Spanish and have helped translate a medical app recently!
What aspects of language have you focused on in your research?
I’ve worked on a variety of topics in linguistics and education but the primary topic is phonetics, or sounds of language. So, for example, my early research was focused on how people acquire sounds in their new language and whether sounds that are similar between their first and second languages are harder to acquire than sounds that are very different between the two (it’s complicated, but sounds that are very different are often easier to perceive and produce). Later in my research career, I became very interested in bilingualism and specifically, how code-switching (language switching) works in naturalistic speech. I was curious to see if when people code-switched, the sounds from language A leak onto language B, vice versa, or if they combined to create hybrid sounds (turns out, all three-but the conditions they occur in are all different). My two open research projects are related to the levels of (acoustic) prominence present in infant-directed speech (the voice people use when speaking to babies) and educational outcomes in higher ed for monolingual and bilingual students.
What’s your perfect day off?
Easy: Wake up naturally, take an hour to drink coffee, take my dog on a long walk, go to the beach/forest/trail, eat a giant lunch, nap, have more coffee, watch TV.