This week, the department continues our series of new faculty profiles by featuring Dr. Mary Lou Vercellotti, who joined our department this year after earning a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Pittsburgh in 2012. Continue reading below to read the interview conducted by English department intern Liz Palmer.

*Photo provided by Mary Lou Vercellotti

Your interests and experience focus on linguistics and how people develop knowledge of multiple languages. What other languages do you know or are learning?

American Sign Language is my second language, and I have studied Spanish and German.  My main research focus, however, is the development of English as second language. So, I’m out of practice. Linguistics is the study of languages in general, and Applied Linguistics addresses language-related issues (e.g., bilingualism, assessment, language pedagogy). Applied linguists might be considered more generalists.

One of your listed interests is the linguistics of American Sign Language. Can you tell us a bit about what that means and how it is different from the study of English linguistics?

Well, theoretically, natural languages (oral or signed) can all be studied using the same linguistic tools, but we have to acknowledge that we are oral-language-centric (and English-centric). For instance, phonetics is commonly referred to as the study of speech sounds in human language, but a more inclusive definition would be “the minimal units” in human language. Of course, while teaching phonetics and phonology, we do focus on oral languages because that is applicable for most students.  The linguistic concepts in phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, sociolinguistics, historical linguistics, however, are the same.  In fact, in ENG 623 this semester, we will spend time applying the course concepts to manual-visual languages.

You have experience teaching English as a second language. How does teaching ESL differ from teaching native speakers? 

I think that, overall, teaching is teaching regardless of the content or students.  There are some adjustments for teaching ESL. Idiomatic expressions (such as “splitting-hairs, AKA), which are so very common in language can be difficult for non-native speakers. Although such expressions should not be avoided entirely, ESL teachers have to be intentional about which expressions to use when teaching other content. In addition, speech rate might need to be adjusted when teaching ESL students, especially if you tend to be a “high-involvement speaker”, who is comfortable with fast, even overlapping, speech. (I’m talking about myself here.)

You’ve published several articles in your career. Which do you think is the most significant and why?

My paper describing the main findings of my dissertation research might make a bit of a splash in the field. This research will be of interest because it challenges a commonly-held assumption about language learning, the idea of trade-off effects in language performance and development.  A trade-off effect is when the focus on one area of language performance, such as fluency, compromises the performance in another area, such as accuracy (i.e., learners cannot be accurate and fluent).  Although these kinds of trade-offs seem plausible and even intuitive, they were not found in my research. My longitudinal study showed that students learning English in an intensive English program did not sacrifice one over another; the students’ speeches improved in all areas throughout development. Additionally, this paper is significant because I used multi-level modeling and within-individual correlation analysis, which are rather new to the field of linguistics.  These statistical methods can better explore the complexity and variability in second language development. This paper is going to be published in Applied Linguistics.

What kind of research projects are you currently working on?

 I am continuing to focus on language development in an instructed English context.  Several of my current projects are off-shoots of my dissertation research.  For instance, for my dissertation, I included three measures of language complexity which were all generally based on length of the utterance. I wanted to recode the data to consider the type of clauses (e.g., adjunct clause, relative clause, complement clause, non-finite clause) the learners produced over time in an intensive English program. I worked with a Linguistics major during a semester-long Undergraduate Research Experience at the University of Pittsburgh to complete this research. We presented our finding at a national conference, Second Language Research Forum, and expect to submit the findings to a journal for publication this semester.

What other kinds of hobbies and interests do you have?

I’ve always liked to talk walks in the woods while living in Pittsburgh, which I guess is called “hiking” when you get more serious about it. Mostly, I hike locally, but I’ve hiked in St. Lucia, Hawai’i, and Provo, Utah.  I will be presenting at conferences in Oregon (AAAL) and Australia (AILA) this year, so I will be sure to find time to hike. We also have a trip planned to Peru.  Plus, I like to kayak, and I’m thinking about learning how to paddleboard.  Finally, I enjoy watching sports, especially the Pittsburgh Penguins.  I’ll watch as much of the Olympics as I can.