Well into the swing of the chats now. Nothing like a 20-minute IM session to increase your typing speed afterwards!
For most of my primary school, I was at St Gregory’s School in Ealing (London) (1981-85). For all of my secondary school (1985-92), I was at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Kensington.
I did a BA in French and Latin at Oxford from 1992 to 1996, then a Master’s in European Politics at the London School of Economics in 1996-7. Then I worked for a while, in lobbying in Westminster, but after a few years I couldn’t resist it and went back to University: I did a Master’s in Linguistics at Cambridge in 2002-3, then did my PhD, in Linguistics as well, at the University of Pennsylvania (in America) from 2003 to 2008. That’s as far as you can go, so I had to stop then. You did ask!
From 2008 to 2011 I worked at the University of York, on a project called Accent and Identity on the Scottish-English Border (trying to find out why people speak so differently on the English and Scottish sides of the border even though their towns are only a few miles apart and they see each other all the time). Then I was at the University of Kent from 2011 to 2012, working on French accents this time. In 2012 I came to Newcastle University, where I am now. My jobs from before that included postman (interesting), Buckingham Palace tourist guide (excellent), and cheese-factory worker (lasted 2 days!).
Lecturer in French Linguistics
Favourite thing to do in my job: Looking in places people have looked before, but finding something new by looking in a different way.
I teach French, and French linguistics, at Newcastle University. I'm a language nerd.
I teach French as a foreign language, and I also teach and do research in French linguistics. Linguistics is the study of the systems that are behind the language we speak--from the sounds we use, to why words mean what they do, to how we put our sentences together. If French (or any other language) was a car, then linguistics would be the engine.
At the moment, when I do my research, I’m working on a few projects. I have a big one about accents in France–there aren’t as many accents to do with places in France as there are in the UK, but there are still some, and we don’t know as much about them as we could. I’m also looking at the way that politicians used language in the UK and French elections in 2017, because what you’re allowed to say into a microphone in the UK is very different to what you’re allowed to say in France. No French politician would ever call themselves ‘bloody difficult’ (which Theresa May said she was). The colleague I’m working with and I want to know more about why that is–what are the different attitudes that make our politicians talk differently?
I also teach French, so I’m interested in what happens when people learn a foreign language. What sort of mistakes do they make? How can we help them not make those mistakes? This is the kind of thing that Sascha (who’s also in this group) is interested in as well.
What I do is called sociolinguistics: it’s about what you can tell about a person when they speak (and sometimes what you can tell about the community they live in, as well). I got into it because I was really interested in why people talk the way they do – and I learned that it was a lot to do with the kind of society they lived in, and the social life they had. What I love about it is that everyone can relate to it, because everyone uses language in some way – sociolinguistics can be done on sign language and writing as well. A lot of what I do is looking into things that we all instinctively know are true, but we didn’t know before why they were true.
More precisely, a lot of what I do is called sociophonetics: phonetics is the science of studying speech sounds – how they are made and what they sound like. This often means using a computer to see what the sound waves look like: when someone speaks with a Geordie accent, you can sometimes see on the screen that it’s different from a London accent, just because of the way it looks. That part of it looks very like what you see sometimes on CSI. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that what they do on CSI with sounds is possible! You can’t usually get a really bad recording and play it through some fancy machinery, then hear a voice coming out crystal-clear and go and arrest someone. Sometimes you can, but it’s mostly much more complicated than that – but that doesn’t make good telly …
If you’re interested in knowing more about that, I’ve got a PowerPoint that I could send you – let me know.
The best bits of my work are when I have to actually go and get the data that I then come back into the office and analyse. That means going out to people’s houses and putting a microphone on them and recording them. You usually have to record some boring stuff, like a word-list, but my favourite part is when you’re just talking to them and they get so caught up in a story that they forget that they’re wearing a mike. I’ve heard some really good stories, and made some good friends, like that.
A lot of people think that, to do linguistics, you have to speak lots of languages. You don’t! It certainly doesn’t hurt if you speak more than one language – and of course it can be helpful – but what makes you a linguist is just that you know things about how languages in general work, and you can do that without speaking lots of them.
The project I am working on at the moment is about different accents in French, but in the past I’ve also worked on more than one big project about different accents in English.
My Typical Day
A typical week for me includes a bit of research, a bit of teaching (of French linguistics and French language), and unfortunately a lot of e-mail! But I'm really interested in the research bits, so that makes the e-mail bits worthwhile.
My favourite days are when I have an interview booked, and I go and talk to the person and they tell really good stories. That happens sometimes! Most often, I’m in my office, either working on analysing the interviews I have done, or doing some research which will help me understand what I’m finding out.
In the project I’m working on at the moment, I’m making something called a dialect atlas of the Northern part of France – that’s like a normal atlas but, instead of roads, cities, rivers and things, the things on the maps are the types of accent that people have, and the areas where the accents are different. So, when my work is done, you’ll be able to look at my maps and see where there are different accents in the North of France. To make this atlas, though, I have to know all about how to make the maps, and how to analyse the linguistic data – so a lot of my day is spent learning all that background kind of stuff, as well.
When I’m not working on the French accents project, my research involves reading quite a lot of newspaper articles about politicians and their language!
My favourite CHRISTMAS LECTURE memory is:
I just think it's great that they're available to the public, and on the telly, and that so many people watch them every year. This year's, with Sophie Scott, were really good. If I could do something like that in future, I'd be really happy.
How does technology threaten your privacy?
Facebook and Google know too much about everyone! It's still possible to keep secrets, but you really have to try, and you have to hope that your friends who know the secrets are as good at keeping them as you are.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Curious about people.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I was very proud when a Summer intro course I taught (in sociolinguistics) persuaded a student (who was 16 at the time) to come to my University and study linguistics!
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My secondary school French teacher, Mr Gormally. I'm very glad that (*cough cough* years later) I am still in touch with him.
What did you want to be after you left school?
A European bureaucrat. I loved the idea of living my life between lots of European countries and getting paid for it! Now I'm a university lecturer, which is much better, but I'm pleased that I get to help my students go abroad (because everyone who studies a language at most Universities has to go and live for a year in a country where they speak the language--or six months in two countries if you are studying two languages).
Were you ever in trouble at school?
When I joined my secondary school, I was the first person in my class ever to get a detention, because I’d forgotten to do some of my homework and I’d copied someone else’s!
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Queen, or Muse, or the Divine Comedy. Though I love choral music by Bach and Howells as well.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I once drove the lifeboat near Eyemouth (Southern Scotland) at night. I was paid for it, as well. It was part of an interview for my research!
Tell us a joke.
I've got a cold. You know that stuff that comes out of your nose when you've got a cold? You think it's mucus--but it's snot. (A linguistics joke. Say it out loud!)