April 6, 2016, by Stephen McKibbin
Q&A with Svenja Adolphs, GRT Lead for Cultures and Communication
This is the fourth of our monthly Q&As with our five Global Research Theme (GRT) leads, for you to find out about who they are, their research and what it means to lead one of the University’s five GRTs. Read previous Q&As from Professor Georgina Endfield, GRT lead for Sustainable Societies, Professor Neil Champness, GRT lead for Transformative Technologies and Professor Victoria Chapman, GRT Lead for Health and Wellbeing.
Find more information on our new Research Strategy 2015-2020, Global Research Themes, Research Priority Areas on Campus News.
1. Can you explain what your research is about?
Language is central to any kind of human endeavour, yet we still know relatively little about the complex and dynamic patterns at play when we communicate with each other. My research aims to develop our understanding of those patterns that we can observe in everyday written and spoken communication. For a long time, researchers mainly referred to their own intuitions when describing a language. However, technology now makes it possible to extract key patterns of language use at the touch of a button, using as a basis very large collections of spoken and written texts (language corpora). This has revolutionised our understanding of language used across different contexts. It allows us to address key questions, such as how frequent individual words and phrases are, how they tend to co-occur with other words and phrases, how and when new words and phrases enter a language, and the patterning between speech and gestures. So, in short, my research aims to develop better descriptions of the English language and, in turn, improve applications that are based on those descriptions.
2. What inspired you to pursue this area of research?
I’ve always been curious about language and communication, and why some uses of language seem to be more successful or lead to different outcomes than others. I remember being hugely inspired by reading some of the early research articles on corpus linguistics and its applications which made me want to explore how technological advances could improve language description even further. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time when I started my PhD at Nottingham. The School of English here was building one of the first ‘large scale’ (for those days) corpora of contemporary spoken English in collaboration with Cambridge University Press. The project was led by my supervisor who is one of the most inspiring academics I know, and I was able to get closely involved in the construction and analysis of the corpus.
The focus at the time was on the development of corpus-informed English language teaching materials; however, the same corpus has since been used for many different applications. Once you have a solid corpus resource, the research possibilities are endless.
3. How will your research affect the average person?
We all regularly come into contact with applications that rely on advanced descriptions of the English language, including modern dictionaries and grammars or spellcheckers, for example. These tend to be informed by corpus linguistics and natural language processing. Equally, drawing on this kind of research allows us to develop more personalised information material based on communicative practices, in the area of health promotion, for example, that ensures that language is accessible to the target audience.
4. What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?
There have been quite a few highlights over the years including the usual milestones such as getting the PhD, having a paper or book accepted for publication, successful grant applications and serving on national committees, alongside the successes of PhD students and colleagues. However, the greatest moments for me have probably happened during creative and productive research collaborations. I get a real buzz out of the amazing new ideas and energy that can emerge, often from a single meeting.
5. What advice would you give to someone starting out in your field?
Stay curious about advances in your discipline and open to ideas from other areas. And don’t get too disheartened when things don’t work out immediately – it’s important to take a long-term view of progress in academia.
6. What’s the biggest challenge facing researchers in your field?
There are huge expectations on researchers to deliver high-quality work across a broad portfolio of activities. At the same time, the fast pace of the research environment itself means that researchers have to be flexible and quick to adapt to new trends. This includes trends that result from increased global connectivity and communication, emerging interdisciplinary directions, new skills and opportunities that come with new technological developments, as well as changes in the funding landscape. Navigating this context successfully can be a big challenge.
7. You lead the Cultures and Communication Global Research Theme (GRT) at Nottingham. What does this entail?
Research into cultures and communication helps us to understand what it means to be human across our past, present and future, locally and globally. Our internationally-renowned researchers work in interdisciplinary teams to find solutions to complex problems facing the human world. Through six Research Priority Areas (RPAs), we’re pioneering new approaches to historical and contemporary issues in rights and justice; the cultural and creative industries; health and wellbeing relevant to policy, education and practice; the way in which communication shapes, and is shaped, by society; understanding British identities; and the integration of digital innovations in new opportunities for knowledge documentation and preservation, cultural exchange, and societal wellbeing.
This work will not only advance our knowledge of questions relating, for example, to ethics, democracy, diversity and inter-cultural communication, but in turn it will also address key concerns of our public, private and third sector partners.
8. How does your work fit within the Cultures and Communication GRT?
My research is interdisciplinary and straddles the boundaries of humanities, social sciences and science. It is also fundamentally applied research: the research questions are regularly user-based and impact-oriented with applications that have repercussions in education, the digital economy, health sciences, business communication and intercultural analysis. The Cultures and Communication GRT offers an environment where this kind of research can be brought to bear on a range of research challenges both within and across its RPAs.
9. How does being based at the University allow you to fulfil your research aspirations?
The kinds of research challenges that are at the heart of our understanding of language and communication are often complex, and require the co-development of multi- and interdisciplinary approaches with colleagues and collaborators across and outside the university. The University of Nottingham actively fosters and supports this kind of interaction in a number of ways, and the GRT/RPA network is one example of this.
Svenja Adolphs is Professor of English Language and Linguistics in the School of English. She holds an MA and PhD from the University of Nottingham where she is the lead for Nottingham’s Cultures and Communication Global Research Theme and Director of the Centre for Research in Applied Linguistics. She is a member of the Capability Committee of the Economic and Social Research Council and a member of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.