When it`s hard to choose between psychology and linguistics, why not choose both? That`s what Linda did as an undergraduate.
Text: Gwen Hanssen
She grew up in Scotland, with a German mother and a father who taught languages. Linda Ruth Wheeldon was introduced to language challenges at an early age. Now she`s working at the Department of Foreign Language and Translation at UiA.
“I am a psycholinguist. As an undergraduate when I was choosing my subjects, I liked both psychology and linguistics, and I couldn’t choose between them, so I asked if I could do a jointed master's and continue with both subjects. They very kindly put something together for me so that I could keep both subjects going to masters level.”
“And really that`s the reason why I am in the field I am, because I ended up quite qualified to look at the psychology of language use, because I had both sides. And basically, I have done the same thing ever since, but in different places.”
Before Linda came to UiA in 2017, she worked at the Birmingham University in the psychology department. Teaching psycholinguistics to psychology undergraduates.
“I am interested in language in the same way traditional linguists study language. I am interested in language structure. What kinds of structures must we have in order to explain how languages are similar to each other, and also how they differ. But I am also interested in whether any of these structures function in our minds. There are different questions to ask if you try to understand how language is represented in our minds and how we use it when we either speak or understand somebody else’s speech.”
“Part of what I do is to test psychological reality of linguistic structures and try to work out the psychology of language processing. This is a process that occurs over time: how quickly can you construct, generate or understand these structures, whether you are listening to or producing speech.”
“The stuff I get excited about doesn`t always excite everybody else, Linda says laughing. The research I have spent the most time doing looks at planning processes for speech production. We speak at an incredible rate, we can produce upwards of three words a second, and we take it completely for granted.”
“But if you look at how complex the processes are in terms of deciding what you want to say, selecting the words you need, building a syntactic structure, building the sound structure, intonation, duration, and then actually generating speech, we use over a hundred muscles in order to generate speech, you have to breathe in rhythm as well as you are articulating. It is a phenomenal thing that we do. It is an incredible skill set.”
“One of the things I have been interested in is when we speak fluently, how far ahead do we plan before we start speaking. How much of the syntax have we built, how many words have we retrieved, how much of the sound structure have we built? Because we don`t do it all before we start. Otherwise, we would plan a sentence, pause, and then plan another. Instead, we start speaking before we have planned a whole sentence and do all of this processing as we speak in order to continue fluently. That`s the research I find exciting.”
Here at UiA she now does the same thing, but with bilingual speakers. She says that`s a whole other level of complexity. Linda is also bilingual: she speaks English, her second language is Dutch, and she`s also learning Norwegian. In the studies at UiA they are looking at English as a second language.
“As a bilingual, there is evidence that you can`t have only one language in your mind at a time. When you use one of your languages, the other one is automatically active. If you are a Norwegian speaking in English, your Norwegian is very active. You have to suppress it quite a lot.”
“The students here are more relaxed, and I mean that in a positive way. Students in Britain are charged enormous fees. Their grades are a matter of huge importance because of the money they are forced to spend. They are much more stressed in the English academic system. It makes teaching less enjoyable. The Norwegian system is a little kinder to its students.”
“In collaboration with Allison Wetterlin we have a research group in the institute of Fremmedspråk og oversetting. It is called Experimental linguistics. We have a lab, and Ph.D. students associated with the lab, and master students can also come and learn to run experiments there. We are also very lucky to have national research funding for one of our projects. We are looking at the effects of growing older on language processing. There is still not so much known about this.”
She says there are two things that might help maintain cognitive function as people get older: being fit and being bilingual. If this is true then just pick up your set of sneakers and get fit, and also, continue learning another language. Linda says that the best way for Norwegians to increase their English skills is to read, and especially to read in the fields you are studying in.
“Read original research sources, that takes you to the next level.”
In Norway where most of the population speaks English, Linda wants to be able to speak Norwegian:
“I couldn`t imagine living in a place and not learning the language”
“It is the core of our communication and we are a communicative species. It is essential to human life and human behavior. You would have to make a really strong argument not to study language.”
Language and psychology are her main interests, but she also enjoys other things in her spare time:
“We have bought a lovely house here with the most amazing view and the most fantastic garden I have ever had. I love to garden, go walking and spend time with friends. I hope I will be able to see more of the country. It`s not been a good year for travel. I want to see the country properly.”