Jennifer Nycz

Jennifer Nycz: Language and Mind (An Exploratory Conversation) (#116)

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Our guest today: Jennifer Nycz

Jennifer Nycz is a researcher and teacher for the Department of Linguistics at Georgetown University. 

I’ve always been interested in linguistics and semiotics. With many questions unresolved when we began the recording, Jennifer helped answer an array of questions related to accent variation, dialect acquisition, phonetics, sociolinguistics, general linguistics.

JenniferNycz | Feisworld

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An ESL (English as a Second Language) person, I began learning basic English at age of 4 or 5. However, it wasn’t until I was 17  (when I moved to the U.S.) that I started to speak English on a daily basis. 

Whether English is your first or second language, we are certain that you will be fascinated by some of the linguistic discoveries in this episode.  Perhaps you’ll go as far as challenging yourself to learn more about English, or a new language! It’s good for your brain. 🙂

To learn more about Jennifer Nycz and her work, please visit her website., or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Show Notes

  • [05:00] What is your background and where does your name NYCZ come from?
  • [06:00] How did you discover Linguistics in the first place? What was your first encounter?
  • [10:00] What is the role of the writing system of a language in the learning process, and how does that change across languages?
  • [11:00] You mentioned that we learn language structures implicitly, but how did languages and dialects started in the first place, and why?
  • [13:00] What are some of the areas within Linguistics and which are the ones that you like the most?
  • [16:00] What are some of the social phenomenons and consequences of accents within the same language?
  • [19:00] Even within the English language there are hundreds of different accents, and some of them are usually favored against others during social meetings and networking (for example, British vs American). Why is that and what should be our approach?
  • [22:00] Is is true that learning new languages get more difficult with age? And how does that relate to the fact that number of older people are learning new languages well?
  • [26:00] What are some of the influences from other languages on the English language, and what are some of the consequences in the learning process, besides the grammatical inconsistencies?
  • [31:00] What is the role (or the new roles) of linguists in the digital age?
  • [33:00] People often have misunderstandings (at work, home, etc). How can a linguist help people understand those flaws and communicate better? Are there tools, resources?
  • [39:00] What are some of your interests outside linguistics?


Favorite Quotes

[07:00] Linguistics is all about uncovering the patterns of language that everyone knows. You have all this implicit knowledge of how structure in your language works, at every level of that structure. Not only you know how to pronounce the sounds of your language, you know how many sounds your language uses in the first place, you know the complex rules for how they can be put together into words. You know the complex set of rules for putting words together to make sentences. You know how to put sentences together to make larger structures. And for the most part, you were not explicitly taught any of this.

[09:00] So there was this puzzle-solving aspect of it that was really pleasing, but also this mind-blowing aspect of it. I had no idea all of this was happening under the hood. I just open my mouth and talk, and it happens, but there’s so much more to it than that.

[13:00] Linguistics allows you to flex lots of different muscles. On the one hand is very analytical and involves looking at data and figuring out patterns from that data and developing theories to account for them. But on the other hand it’s social. Language is something we use between people.

[28:00] We all contain multitudes. We all construct different identities in different contexts and we shift the way we speak depending on who we are in a particular context. Everyone does this […] and it can be a real problem for those who speak varieties who are stigmatized. But if you can frame it in a way of ‘you have different ways of being in different contexts’, you can speak one way with your family and it’s perfectly fine, and you speak in another way in a job interview, and it’s all perfectly fine. The more that we can move towards that mindset, the more people will feel good about their language skills and their place in the world.

[38:00] What linguistics has helped me do is to reflect on my own reactions, to any sort of social phenomena. Because I’m a human and I react to things, sometimes in a negative way. But I always step back and think ‘Is the thing that I think is happening actually happening? Is the reading I’m doing about the reasons of why people are doing this correct? And of course when you reflect on these things you often realize that maybe your first reaction is not correct.

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Transcript of Interview with Jennifer Nycz

Intro  0:00 

Welcome to the Feisworld podcast, engaging conversations that cross the boundaries between business, art and the digital world.


Jennifer  0:32 

So linguistics is all about uncovering the patterns of language that everyone knows if you speak the human language. You have all this implicit knowledge of how structure in your language works at every level of that structure. And for the most part, you were not explicitly taught any of this.


So there was this puzzle-solving aspect of it, which was really pleasing. But also this mind-blowing aspect of “Oh my gosh, I had no idea all of this was happening under the hood, I just, you know, open my mouth and talk and it happens”. But there’s so much more to it than that.



What linguistics has helped me do is reflect on my own reactions to any sort of social phenomena, because some of the human reactions to things, sometimes they’re negative, but I always sort of step back and think, was there anything really to that? So is the thing that I think is happening actually happening? And that sort of mind reading I’m doing to come up with a reason for why people are doing this, is that really correct? And of course, when you reflect on these things a little bit, you think “Okay, well, maybe my first reaction was not correct”.


We all contain multitudes, right? We’re all constructing different sort of identities in different contexts. And we shift the way we speak depending on who we are in a particular context, right? But if you can frame it in a way of life, you have different ways of being in different contexts. You can speak one way with your family, and that’s perfectly fine. And you can speak another way in a job interview. And that’s perfectly fine. And it’s all perfectly fine. The more that we could move towards that mindset, the more people will feel good about their language skills and their place in the world, I think.


Fei Wu  2:20 

Hello, my friends. This is your host Fei Wu for the Feisworld podcast. Welcome to another new episode, and today I am joined by Jennifer Nycz. Jennifer is a researcher and teacher for the Department of linguistics at Georgetown University. How did I find her? I didn’t. Feisworld podcast audio producer and engineer and her mom did. And they referred her to me. We had a blast! I had always been interested in linguistics and semiotics. On this episode, Jennifer and I talked about accent variation, dialect, acquisition, phonetics, sociolinguistics, general linguistics and much more. In addition, as an ESL person myself, which is English as a second language, I have had my share of studying and experiencing many aspects of linguistics. How our accents formed, what is the likelihood of someone adopting an accent that isn’t native to him or her. Is there an optimal age to learn a new language? And can someone learn a new language later in life? How does learning a new language trigger brain development or other benefits? Why do languages come more easily for some people than others? Hopefully, by the end of this podcast, you will want to pick up a new language on your own and really enjoy the process and maybe impress your friends and family too. Now, Feisworld podcast is all about people who live interesting lives just under the radar. If you enjoy this episode, please check out a few others on your mobile app or directly from our website at Our hamburger menu has a categories option for you to navigate a variety of topics from art and design to entrepreneurship to social services to performing arts even marketing and agency lives. So thank you for choosing Feisworld. And without further ado, please welcome Jennifer Nycz to the Feisworld Podcast.


Fei Wu  4:46 

I am excited because I happen to have this great opportunity. You know, when I was 12 or 13, I’ve learned English, but the opportunity to come to the United States and really be able to practice the language… I was 17 at a time, and language and linguistics have been a subject that really fascinated me for a long time. But I did not study and there are so many questions lingering in the back of my head. I’m just excited to have you here. So what is your background? Where is it? What is the origin of your name?


Jennifer  5:19 

Well, it’s a Polish name and if you’re being properly bullish about it, you’d say something more like “niche”, but for whatever reason, my family says “nice”. But I am definitely American, I was born here, my parents were born here, my grandparents were born here, and I’m originally from Cranford, New Jersey, which is kind of a suburb of New York City and Union County, less than an hour outside of your city, a town of about 20,000-22,000 people. So I grew up in suburban New Jersey and eventually went to college in New Hampshire, at Dartmouth College, which is when I discovered linguistics and how wonderful it was. After I finished Dartmouth I went to graduate school in linguistics at New York University.


Fei Wu  6:04 

So tell me a bit more about the discovery of the magic of linguistics while you’re at Dartmouth. What happened and what did you study at the time?


Jennifer  6:14 

Well, what happened was I took linguistics, “101” sort of class, my freshman fall. So, actually, in high school, I had been a real “math person”. So I was on the math team and took all the AP Calculus courses and all that. So when I started my freshman fall, of course, I enrolled in this advanced placement honors math class, which was fine. But within a few minutes of that class, I realized, you know, I enjoyed math, but I wasn’t really going to go further in this field. And I certainly didn’t fit in with the people who are in that class at the time. So I was looking around for a replacement class, and ideally, one that fulfilled the quantitative and deductive sciences requirements. And essentially, of course, that means math, but it also means linguistics. And I thought: Okay, well, I never really heard of linguistics. I don’t know what that means. But if it is like math with the language then I’m all for it. So I enrolled in the class and essentially just had my mind blown for a whole semester. Linguistics is all about uncovering the patterns of language that everyone knows if you speak the human language. You have all this implicit knowledge of how structure in your language works at every level of that structure. So not only do you know how to pronounce the sounds of your language, but you know how many sounds your language uses in the first place, you know the complex rules for how they can be put together into words, what’s allowed, what’s not allowed, you know these complex set of rules for putting together a little bits of words, roots and prefixes and suffixes to make bigger words, you know how to put words together to make sentences, you know how to put sentences together to make larger stretches of discourse, and for the most part, you were not explicitly taught any of this. So there’s, of course, the grammar that everyone takes an elementary school. We do learn various aspects of prescriptively correct standard English, but no one actually sat you down when you were a toddler and said: okay, remember, the “the” has to go before a noun, you know. And you can start a word with “bl” like a word like “Blick”, but you can’t start a word in English with “bn”, like “Bnick”, right. These are just things that you learned by osmosis and internalized and you employ them every time you speak. So linguists are interested in what does that knowledge look like in the first place? How do we internalize those rules? What are the underlying representations and rules of grammar that we use to structure our language? How did we come to learn that? How can that knowledge change over the lifespan and so on? So it was in the course of learning about this underlying structure of language doing problem sets, where our professor would hand us a list of sentences in some other language with their glosses and say: okay, figure out what is the syntax of this language. So there was this puzzle-solving aspect of it, which was really pleasing, but also this mind-blowing aspect of it, like “Oh, my gosh, I had no idea all of this was happening under the hood. I just, you know, open my mouth and talk and it happens”. But there’s so much more to it than that.


Fei Wu  9:23 

Wow. So it’s interesting. And a lot of people asked me: What is it like for a small child, a young child, to learn a language such as Chinese? And I realized that my answer has been: Look, if you don’t have an option, you have to learn it. Not that, you know, it was necessarily enjoyable. I remember as a child that it really wasn’t, because unlike English, where I feel like I can spell it, I can make a sound of it, the Chinese characters, unfortunately, are not always structured with hints. And sometimes I find them to be tricky because it reads as if it supposed to sound a certain way, but actually has nothing to do with a character you’re looking at.


Jennifer 10:05

So it was interesting that when you talked about learning a language, you talked about learning the writing system of the language and contrasting the character-based system of Chinese with the more alphabetic system of, say, English. And linguists often make a distinction between written language and spoken language, cause written language is really sort of secondary and in a sense not as natural as a spoken language. So every human if they grow up in normal circumstances and don’t have any sort of neural problems, right, they will learn a human language. And actually, most of the world learn more than one language as a child, whereas written language, that’s not something that everybody has, right? So not everybody is literate, of course, babies don’t come out literate, even tellers that can produce senses can’t necessarily write them. And of course, unfortunately, there are adults who are not literate. And there are adults who have tried with literacy, right, because of things like dyslexia. So there’s something about that mapping between orthography and sound, which is an additional process which we have more recently added on to the spoken language. But spoken language is really the thing that linguists focus on, it is the real object of study. And, of course, other linguists focus on how writing systems work as well. It’s sort of like a little sub-area.


Fei Wu  11:25 

And when it comes to spoken language, we’re never really questioned this, when at the beginning of time, the origin of languages, how are these sounds and these rules even determined? I mean, what were some of these guidelines? How did this happen?


Jennifer  11:41 

That’s a great question. It’s still sort of a mystery. And there’s a lot of debate as to how language evolved and where it came from, and even different theories as to what language is originally for. So there are some linguists to think that, well, obviously language is chiefly about communications, so it evolved out of maybe some a system of gestures or something that humans originally used in a simplistic way. And then that evolved into the more complex linguistic structure. Others believe that the basics of linguistic structure actually originated from more structured thought, so it was more like we developed certain mental apparatus for thinking about causality and relationships between ideas. And then that became kind of the skeleton of spoken language. You know, it’s hard to know. Unfortunately, brains, which is where language resides, they don’t leave fossils right there, they’re mushy [laughs].

They just go away. So we can’t dig up old brains and determine what the neural structure was and what was doing what. So it’s kind of a mystery. And there are linguists that have very strong opinions on how it must have been.


Fei Wu  12:50 

what are some of the areas about linguistics that interest you personally the most? It’s interesting because you mentioned, different linguists will focus on different areas, which I find very similar in my industry as well, just because people fundamentally are different. And so what do you like the most?


Jennifer  13:06 

Sure, well, the thing that interested me about linguistics, in addition to the solving the puzzles and figuring out the structures, was the fact that is sort of allows you to flex lots of different muscles. So linguistics, on the one hand, is very analytical and involves looking at data and figuring out patterns from that data and developing series to account for them. But on the other hand, it’s social, like language is something we use between people, it is a social phenomena. And so it’s interfaces with the social world and society. I particularly interested in the fields of phonetics and phonology, which deal with sounds of language. So phonetics specifically has to do with the physical sort of realization of sound. So how you articulate sounds, how they are perceived by the ear, what their acoustic print looks like, how you can analyze them acoustically. Phonology deals more with the abstract knowledge you have about the sounds of your language. So how you cut up the very continuous acoustic signal into discrete units that you can use to build words out of. And I like phonetics and phonology because looking at accent variation sits at the axes of this social world, the mental world, but also the physical, right. So when you utter some utterance in your language, you have some sort of propositional content that gets transducer in some way into this series of tongue and mouth motions. And that produces this sound wave which hits your ear or the ear of whoever’s listening, and then gets decoded back into that set of sounds. But as I do that, I’m not just conveying propositional content, right, I’m also going to convey something about my social reality, or how I construe the social situation. So you’ll be able to tell things about my gender, my age, possibly my regional background, whether I like you or not, whether I’m feeling sick or maybe a little tired or energetic that day. So there’s all this additional stuff that gets conveyed along with that message. And of course, it is affected by my physical state. So if I’m talking to you, and I’m holding a paintbrush in my mouth because I’m painting, that’s going to affect not only how I produce those words, but the signal that comes out of that. So phonetics and phonology really sit at this place, where you have to understand the physical and how it interacts with the mental and also how it functions in the social world.


Fei Wu  15:37 

Yeah, accents are… it’s only one of many things that you articulated just now. But for me, it’s really interesting. For one, how I have been treated differently as a result of the way that I speak. One example I can think of immediately is looking at my peers. Many of them are much smarter, and they worked on their language skills, English skills much harder. I remember kids, you know, facing the mirror and practicing all day long. But still, they couldn’t get rid of their original accent. So I remember either applying to college or applying to jobs, I had this huge advantage. In fact, sometimes it can be a curse of people not knowing that I might need a work visa, for example, to actually work in this country. And, you know, HR would assume, obviously, I’m American. So what are your thoughts on that sort of the social phenomenon of accents?


Jennifer  16:30 

Oh, my gosh, so many thoughts! Well, I mean, I could speak to what we call L2 – accent. So, it’s accent in a language that is not your native language, and it can be very hard to shake them. So depending on when you acquired your second language, you may have more or less difficulty kind of overcoming those very first motor patterns that you internalize in learning your first language. So the accent that you have is just how you pronounce all the sounds of your language. An important point to make here is that everyone has an accent, not just people who to you sound different, but everyone has an accent because we all have a way of pronouncing the words of our language. And that is determined by, you know, growing as a child, figuring out what are the particular motions, muscles, linguists believe that just the purpose of babbling. So babbling is kind of how babies experiment and figure out what articulation corresponds to what sound, so they can match what’s in their environment. And that gets solidified pretty early. And that’s not to say that people can’t lose their accent or learn new motor patterns. But it becomes increasingly difficult as you get older. So there’s probably an issue of how early you learn the language.


Fei Wu  18:04 

So I assume L1 means, like, Level one, English is your first language?


Jennifer  18:08 

Yeah, first language.



Fei Wu  18:10 

I noticed the interesting aspects of accent on English speakers. So living in Boston, as you know, I am automatically exposed to a lot of researchers, and PhDs who travel all the way from European countries, from England, to study here. And I noticed how people, generally speaking, favor the British accent for English speakers. What I find fascinating is that the sort of the internal consistency among people with the same accent, even though from outside of that circle, and it may appear to be odd or not accepted or understood, but internally, they understand each other. So how do we process that, how should we understand that little bit better?


Jennifer  19:02 

Well, so one thing to keep in mind is that if you try to strip away the social world for a minute, and just consider languages or dialects as linguistic systems as communication systems – and it’s accepted and sort of axiomatic by linguist, but also based on actually looking at different languages and dialects and how they operate – all human dialects are equally good at being languages, whether you’re looking at the most standard of British English accent, or the most vernacular urban varieties, when you actually look at the patterns in the language, they’re all equally good at communicating what they need to communicate. They’re all highly systematic, right? So sometimes people speak derisively of certain accents or dialects being without grammar. Well, that’s not true. There’s certainly a grammar, there are things that you can and can’t do in that language, ways that you can put together words into senses and in ways that you can’t. So all human varieties have those rules, but because they’re used by humans, languages tend to become associated with groups of people, and groups of people have, for better or for worse, social evaluations attached to them. So there are certain groups of people that we esteem highly, usually people who have money, or people who have white skin, or people who are from certain countries, and there are particular people that society doesn’t esteem as much. Like people of certain genders or ethnicities or who don’t have money. And lo and behold, if you think about the sort of evaluations that attached to different dialects, which are the ones that are valued, it’s the ones spoken by people who are powerful. And the ones that people deride are the ones spoken by those who are not powerful or are socially marginalized in some way. So there are certainly these language attitudes out there that you definitely notice. So everyone thinks British speakers are so posh and classy, and people have different sorts of opinions about varieties associated with actually minority groups. But that is not about the language at all. It’s not about the sounds of the language or the structure of the language. It’s about how people feel about the speakers of that language.


Fei Wu  21:15 

Absolutely. And there are a lot of sort of truths and the myths associated with this subject. And then people somehow, without learning it or really studying it professionally, not only relying on their assumptions but in a way almost, you know, spread them. For example, I often hear two things from my parents, who are older: we are way too old for this, we will never be able to learn a language. And I find that to be not true at all, because I know people who are older purposely learning a new language, sometimes into their 60s, 70s and 80s. So is there such a thing as age, or due to some other factors, that people are unable to learn as well or as fast as they get older? Or is this sort of on a person-by-person basis?


Jennifer  22:07 

Well, it’s complex. So, practically speaking, it seems to be easier to learn a new language, the earlier it gets its claws into you, people have an easier time, seems to be, more likely in certain ways. That’s not to say it’s impossible. So there’s this idea floating around of the “critical period”, or some people prefer to say something like “sensitive period”, which is this idea that there are certain windows of time, usually early in life, where you’re particularly receptive to linguistic input, and interpreting it and learning it. And this comes from some earlier documented cases, maybe some of which you’ve heard of, of these terrible cases where you find a child who, for reasons, was usually neglected or abused and has not been exposed to any linguistic input before, say, age 12. And no surprise, these children tend to have severe language deficits, and never really approximate normal adult-like speech. Now, in those cases, it’s hard to tell exactly what the cause of that is. So is it because they didn’t get any linguistic input and they missed their sensitive period and now there’s no hope? Or is it because of the profound effect of neglect and abuse? Often, there are some developmental difficulties that go along with that. And then you can also ask, were those pre-existing or are those the result of the deprivation interview? So it’s kind of difficult to pinpoint that causality. But the fact remains that people can still learn other languages and accents as they get older. On the one hand, you may lose a bit in terms of neuroplasticity, but you have other skills as an adult. When you’re approaching learning a new language, for instance, you have all this great executive function, right, which gives you the discipline to actually sit down and study and bring all sorts of real-world knowledge to this task, you maybe have different types of motivation. And motivation seems to be a pretty strong predictor. So if you really need to learn a new language and you’re surrounded by that input and people that you can speak it with, you’re going to be a lot more successful than if you don’t really care that much and if you’re like taking at class once a week. So motivation is really key, exposure is really key, probably there are some inter-speaker differences in terms of more general abilities that may distinguish people and make it a little easier or harder to learn. So differences in working memory capacity, or other attentional aspects that, you know, if you have a lot of working memory and are very focused, maybe you’ll have an easier time, but nothing seems to be impossible.


Fei Wu  24:43 

I love how you were explaining this, because I feel that what often stops older people (and particularly older Asian people) on this, is there’s a belief system that they have, is when they hear a Caucasian person speaking fluent or semi-fluid Chinese, they’re shocked and say: You’re talented, you’re born to do this. The answer has never been: Oh, you’re interested, you’re motivated, how did you get exposed to this? So with the way that you shared your knowledge, your experience is that we are all welcome. We can all expose ourselves to those, and I love executive function, I don’t know, I felt like: yeah, I have that, I have control over this. And so that’s kind of the distinction.

So, there’s an observation of me as a foreigner, as a, you know, English as a second language, I notice when people complain that English is difficult and somewhat unpredictable language, I finally get it because I feel that it was still largely influenced by every language that existed next to it: French, Latin or German. There’s a lot of inconsistencies in the English itself and the fact that there are a lot of English words that have two things in them, for example, like the cease and desist. So there’s that English and French influence there, like, where did that come from?


Jennifer  26:12 

Well, okay. So in terms of a language being difficult to learn, that will depend largely on what language experience you already have. So for speakers of some languages, English may be very hard and seem very random and crazy. But for some other speakers who are speakers of languages, which have very complex sentence structures and word structures and sound structures, English is a piece of cake. So it’s kind of depends on where you’re coming from. Another thing to point out is, again, this difference between writing and speaking. So English, the written language, is pretty crazy in terms of the spelling, and that is because – well, this is the short version – English orthography was sort of codified, there was a set of ongoing battleships that occurred, which basically meant that all the sounds that used to be perfectly, transparently indicated by the orthography, we’re no longer like that, they all kind of shifted around. That’s one thing that makes the writing difficult. And of course, when you learn a new language, you learn the writing along with the speaking. So the writing can make it seem a lot more difficult than it actually is. In addition to evaluations that people have about particular groups of people. There’s a lot of underlying ideologies about language, which it helps to make explicit. So one of these, which people in this country, in particular, seem to have is that ideology “of one speaker – one language”. You’re supposed to be one thing only, and you have one language that reflects that, which is just crazy because that’s not the case. We all contain multitudes, right, we’re all kind of constructing different identities and different contexts. And we shift the way we speak, depending on who we are in a particular context. So everyone does this: you speak differently in the classroom room than you do to your roommates, or to your doctor, or if you’re giving a public speech, and we all have this ability as part of being a competent speaker, human languages being able to shift in this way. And it can be a real problem for those who speak varieties that are stigmatized. So going back to African American English, as linguists term this variety, a lot of the conflict for those speakers comes from a wider belief that, you know, there is a single way that you speak. So that means you have a choice between speaking the standard, which is what employers and schools want you to sound like, or you can speak the way your family and your friends and your neighbors speak. And those things are important, we value making lots of money and being seen as educated and competent. But we also value being loved and accepted and being part of a group. So when you frame that sort of thing as a conflict, people run into problems, and they may not learn a standard, or they may feel alienated from their communities. But if you can frame it in a way of like: No, you have different ways of being in different contexts, you can speak one way with your family. And that’s perfectly fine. And you can speak another way in a job interview, and that’s perfectly fine. And it’s all perfectly fine. And the more that we can move towards that mindset, the more people will feel good about their language skills and their place in the world.


Fei Wu  29:32 

I love that. That’s the purpose of language. After all, it’s interesting, though, how we kind of categorize languages to have some exclusive bonus. I actually noticed, like you said, some of my friends will speak differently, whether they’re outside versus they’re at home. And when I notice they speak to me as if they’re home, because I’ve heard both accents, it brings this warmth to my heart. Because, yeah, I’m part of this group. And I know that our relationship changes instantly, as a result of that. Wow, this is fascinating!


Fei Wu  30:34 

You know, there’s one category of questions I’m trying to structure in a way that I see linguistics very different now, in today’s digital age. There is, you know, Siri on our phone, on our computer. I worked in computer science for a while, and how roles, potentially your roles, today change in comparison to when you were in college? I mean, how do linguists play in the digital age today? I’m so curious.


Jennifer  31:07 

Well, there’re certainly those who are starting to focus on what they call “computer-mediated communication”, which is really fascinating. So typically, computer-mediated communication, a lot of it takes place in textual format, but it occupies a sort of hybrid region between spoken language, which is often synchronous. So people are having a conversation back and forth, and it kind of assumes a lot of shared context. So if you are not here and having a conversation, and someone jumps into the middle, they may have no idea what we’re talking about, because we’re using lots of pronouns and referring to him, and “it” and “that”, and we know what we’re talking about. Because we have that shared context. This is usually different in written language, which is typically asynchronous, so you write something for somebody else to read later and you can’t assume that sort of shared context. So you have a lot more detail in certain respects, you can structure your sentences differently, to make them look good on a page as opposed to being something that’s easily digestible by the ear. So computer-mediated conversation or communication operates in this intersection between the two. And it’s really fascinating, right? I have some colleagues who made observations about, like, if you’re texting someone, the meaning of how long it takes for someone to respond? And when they respond, is there a period in the end or not? And what does that mean? It’s so fascinating because it is this evolving form, where the norms are not really settled yet. So people are still trying to figure it out. People are bringing different assumptions and norms to this, there’s a lot of generational differences, which, when people are not aware of them, could be really disturbing. If your colleague sends you an email or a text, and it ends with a period, if you’re 20 something, you think that person hates you [laughs]. But no, they just think you end a text with a period. So there are all these ongoing things that I think linguists can help people be aware of, and make explicit and realize that when there are these sort of mismatches, you don’t automatically assume the worst or interpret that in your own framework. And think about what could this mean for other people, what other cultures might say, bring to this? And what are the other possibilities besides “Oh my god, the person I’m talking to hates me!”. Maybe we need something else.


Fei Wu  33:29 

Wow, I can see I’m bridging over to an area, that you started to talk about, on your LinkedIn profile. So much what you know, actually translates really well into other domains, at a glance, probably don’t relate to linguistics as much, such as project management, which is an area I’ve been in for over 10 years. I feel that linguists should really work in corporations. At least, run these type of workshops, because miscommunications and misconceptions are happening there on a daily, hourly basis. Emails are a great example. You know, everybody says: Oh, we prefer in-person meetings. But the reality is that that’s not always going to happen, people are working more remotely these days. So you started to kind of dive into that, reading an email and not thinking the worst thing, to know their cultural background, age, their friends. Are there any tools and sort of resources that can help people navigate that side of the communication little bit better?


Jennifer  34:33 

I think linguists have a lot to offer here in terms of just generally getting people to question what they think they know about language or any other social phenomenon. Really, so often people embrace these myths or come up with conclusions about telling, or other sort of social phenomena. Well, they’ll say: Oh, this group “x”, they always do “y”, because of reasons “z”. And then, of course, they have a feeling about that. And often, it’s like a bad feeling. And what linguistics has taught me is that you’re going to have to question all of those things. So first of all, look at the phenomenon. It’s an empirical issue, first of all, whether this thing is happening, and whether you characterize it correctly.

So, let me make this a little more concrete. One thing you may have heard is about creaky voice. Some opinions that people have is like: oh, young women, they always use all the creaky voice because they want to sound like Kim Kardashian.

So you can look at all the pieces of this, you can look at, okay, well, where’s the creaky voice happening? So can we look, is that the case that people are just creaking all the time? Well, when you look more closely at that, you find that, actually, it’s not the case. So English speakers, in particular, they tend to creak at the end of turns. So when I’m speaking at the end of an utterance, or the end of a turn, my voice will go a little creaky, and it’s a way of kind of indicating to you as my interlocutor that I’m done talking, you can talk now. It’s also something that occurs when people are saying particular types of things. So when people are expressing particular types of attitude, like maybe a distance or irony or maybe sarcasm, the creaky voice may come out a little more. So already, you can just look at creaky boys, where is it happening? And you can identify, like, actual patterns, right? So it’s not just a random thing you look at. Who’s using it? Is it just young women? Well, young women are pretty salient users of it, young women tend to be on the vanguard of most cool linguistic changes. But when you look more widely, everybody does this. So particularly, that term, taking an aspect of creaky voice, you can look back decades at recordings of male news announcers. And there everybody creaks at the end of an utterance (an English speaker), and of course, men creak as well. And young men are increasingly creaking. So we may want to look at this and think: so, why are we associating this with young women in particular, what’s going on there? And then, of course, you can look for the reasons why people are doing it. And, you know, one potential hypothesis is that everyone wants to sound like Kim Kardashian. But there are other possibilities, like, maybe they’re doing what everyone else around them, just because people tend to talk like people they talk to, maybe they’re using it as a communicative resource to convey things like the attitude, or the stands they’re taking about the thing they’re talking about, or they’re using it to indicate that it’s the next person’s turn. So there’s just so much complexity and all of these things. And what linguistics has helped me do is reflect on my own reactions to any sort of social phenomena, because some of the human reactions to things, sometimes they’re negative, but I always want to step back and think, was there anything really to that? So is the thing that I think is happening actually happening? Is it really the people that I think it is? And the reasons, the mind-reading I’m doing to come up with a reason for why people are doing this – is that really correct? And of course, when you reflect on these things a little bit, you think: Okay, well, maybe my first reaction was not correct. And I feel like if more people took the social science perspective on this social phenomena, there’d be a lot fewer angry people, many less angry people on the internets, angry people in general, perhaps. It’d be very helpful. So that is one way that linguistics or social sciences in general, I think, could help the business world, which is like every other aspect of human endeavor, about interacting with other people and people who are not exactly the same as you. So can you reflect on what people are doing, what your reaction is, what your reaction is, actually, what that says about you apart for what it says about the person you’re reacting about? And then how do you deal with that?


Fei Wu  39:11 

You strike me as a very curious person. And I’m wondering, you know, besides everything you’re doing now at work, what are some of the other things that interest you outside of linguistics?


Jennifer  39:26 

There’s a continuum, which is like “more academic to less academic”. So outside of linguistics, but just thinking about higher education more generally, I’m very interested in graduate students, and the process of becoming a scholar. So this is something that, you know, as someone who reflects a lot on my own trajectory through life, I thought a lot about my own path from starting off as a first-year grad student who didn’t really know anything, to becoming a professor. That was a process, it didn’t occur overnight. And now that I’m someone who advises grad students, I’m really fascinated by that process of when people come in as a first-year student, mostly taking classes, mostly taking direction from other people – how did they get from that point to where they’re finishing their dissertation? And how they are an expert in a field and in a particular thing that they put their dissertation about? And how do their sort of social practices and linguistic practices, as part of that, reflect that change? So this is something that I’m actually hoping to start to research on, following grad students longitudinally from when they start to when they finish, you know. How do people make that transition from student to scholar, right to amateur, to professional in the academic context? So that’s one thing I’m really fascinated by. And to that end, I try to incorporate a lot of mentoring and professional development into my classes, into my grad student interactions. So that’s a more academic interest.


Fei Wu  41:06 

I think that’s fascinating. And surprisingly, as I’ve spoken with several guests in many different fields, myself included, having worked in advertising and marketing, I’m fascinated by when someone goes through the internship as a marketer to associate, to senior associate, and how frustrating that process was, and how scary it was at the beginning. You know, frankly, there were a lot of roles in my field, such as project management, production, that were simply not taught in school at all. I hear the same thing from doctors about training students, residents, who graduated the age of 29-30 and literally never had a real job. And this is the first one, and they might have to stand somewhere, telling someone that they have cancer. Like, how do you facilitate that process? So I’m really curious about this project you’re talking about. Has it started yet?


Jennifer  42:01 

No, it hasn’t started yet. It’s this sort of thing that I’m writing up, the IRB. So whenever you do any sort of research with human subjects in an academic context, you need the Institutional Review Board permission, which is good, because, you know, earlier in the 20th century, you had people injecting others with cancer cells, or zapping them with shocks  because they could, and those kinds of crazy things going on. So it’s good that we have to get some sort of institutional permission to do these things. But it is kind of a process where you have to articulate what is it exactly you’re going to do, and how you’re going to do it, and how you’re going to safeguard the rights of the person you’re interviewing, experimenting on. So these are early phases. And it is the thing that also I’m looking to start after my next career milestone, which is going up for tenure, which happens in the next year. So that’s something I want to get past and finish up a lot of old projects before I move on to something new. But it’s this idea that’s been growing in the back of my head, which I’ve been implementing in informal ways, in my courses and my interactions with students, but I’m going to make it part of my research as well.


Fei Wu  43:06 

Yeah, I think that will absolutely interest a lot of my listeners. So maybe, as a follow-up – what are some of the other activities and interests that you have?


Jennifer  43:16 

Sure, I do practice yoga and meditation and enjoy reading a lot about these sort of wellness practices in a very serious empirical way. So there’s a lot of really good research, for instance, on the benefits of meditation. Jon Kabat-Zinn is associated with a lot of this work. I mean, again, it kind of comes back to my academic interest in reflecting on the reactions you have to things, right. So this is a very meditative notion, right? The idea that you have a thought, but you don’t necessarily run with it, you kind of step back from it and observe it, don’t let it necessarily drive your action.


Fei Wu  44:00 

This is fantastic because I feel that – not to relate everything back to linguistics – but there is that common thread and theme, you know. Meditation is something that I  brought upon myself roughly about 10 years ago. And what are some of the apps you’re using for meditation or methods that you’re considering?


Jennifer  44:21 

Well, I like the Headspace app, which has gotten a lot of airplay, and I think they’re pretty well known at this point. I especially like it because it keeps track of your streaks. So how many days in a row you’ve meditated, which, in a sense, is very anti-meditative, like I’m competitively meditating with myself. But that’s kind of nice. And it does help to build that habit. I mean, so much of succeeding, I feel I’m learning as I get older, it’s just like building the right habits and putting things on autopilot and making sure the things on autopilot are good things to do. So do you wake up every morning and have a glass of water and that just becomes the thing you do? That’s really good. Yeah, you don’t think about it, you don’t think about “I must hydrate in the morning”, but you just do it. And so having that very minor accountability of having a streak, being calculated in the app can really help build that habit. And now I have a morning meditation every morning. And it’s a really good habit to have. One way in which these activities contrast with my day job as being a linguist, they’re either very physical, or about concrete things, or getting out of my head, which I think is really crucial. So if you’re in the knowledge work business, which, I guess, everyone is nowadays, or many of us, that requires certain types of skills. And it can be very easy to go a little overboard and get caught up in the knowledge part and caught up in your head, which, you know, it’s very rewarding, and it’s what we’re good at. But there are also ways in which it is less dissatisfying. So when you’re creating knowledge, you’re never really clear on what you’ve done, right? It’s not the same as having a thing that you’ve made. And particularly in academia, when you’re working on a research project, it can be a really long time before you have a tangible thing you can hold, like in the form of a publication. And something like cooking a meal – it’s just so immediately gratifying. You buy the food, you create something good out of the food from a recipe, or just like your own skills. At the end of it, you have a meal that you made, and you eat it, and you’re full, and it’s all very concrete. And the accomplishments are clear, and you do it with your hands. And it’s very satisfying. So having those sorts of activities whether it’s making a meal with your hands, or spending a certain amount of time doing yoga positions, or running, which is something also they do, being able to get out of your head and into the physical world is really important.


Fei Wu  46:59 

It’s crucial. I’ve come across so many PhDs and researchers in Boston who are just living miserable lives. I always hate to say that because they’re so incredibly smart and good at what they do. But they’re really stuck in their heads. And I know it takes years to finish up a research paper, and many of them don’t necessarily like the workout or do something with their hands, and I can see how frustrating that would be. Yeah, I love the advice, I think that’s this is critical for anybody. Most of us are working in front of a desk, not going to a classroom even, just literally right here, for 8-10 hours a day.

So this is so cool! I’m so glad. Yeah. Thank you so much.


Jennifer  47:47 

Yeah, have a great day!


Fei  48:00 

Hey, it’s Fei, I am back for a few words at the end of the show. I hope you enjoyed what you heard. You can visit us online at, or social channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, also under Feisworld, to keep things simple. I personally review and respond to all the messages. Love to hear from you. Thank you and lots of hugs. See you next week.

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