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Dr David Britain - On dialect studies

INSIGHTS: ETAS Journal Volume 30 No. 2 Spring 2013 

On dialect studies, linguistics research, and the University of Bern’s Linguistics Program

An interview with Dr David Britain

Dr David Britain has held the Chair of Modern English Linguistics at the University of Bern since January 2010 and is the co-author of Linguistics: an introduction (CUP, second edition, 2009). Prior to UNIBE, he was a Senior Lecturer at the University of Essex in Colchester, England, where he also earned his PhD in Sociolinguistics. Dr Britain completed a Postdoc in New Zealand where he was part of a research team that undertook the first large-scale social dialect analysis of New Zealand English. Currently, Dr Britain is an Associate Editor of the Journal of Sociolinguistics, and is on the editorial board of the Journal of Linguistic Geography, the International Journal of English Studies, Babel, and the French Review of English Linguistics.

We are pleased and honoured to be able to interview him for this issue.

Let’s start off with your work at the University of Bern. What does the Chair of Modern English Linguistics do?

My job has three main roles: (1) to coordinate the Linguistics teaching in the English Department and, despite the Linguistics section being very small, to organise a full and coherent study programme right from the early years of the BA to the more specialist and research-oriented stages of the MA; (2) to conduct research in my field of specialisation, and support the scholars of the future to do so too, by supervising MA and PhD theses; (3) as a co-director of the English Department, to supervise and administer the activities of the Department as a whole. From February 2011 to January 2013, was Head of Department.

What is Modern English Linguistics? What does the term encompass?

I like to think of Linguistics in a rather broad sense as the study of language. Consequently it encompasses very many topics. Most fundamentally it considers the building blocks of the language – the sounds and how they are combined together; the words; how these words are combined to form utterances; and how these utterances are combined together to form discourse, so the study of phonetics and phonology, lexis, morphology and syntax, and discourse. Additionally, it includes meaning and how that meaning is applied in everyday talk. It includes how English has emerged and changed over time and the many influences from other languages that have shaped it over the years, as well as the influence it has had on other languages. Important too is how English is acquired both by children and adults as well as the structure of English used by people with a language disorder. For me, an especially important part of English Linguistics is looking at the different Englishes spoken around the world and thinking about how they got that way. And as a sociolinguist, I am also interested in how people’s language use can both manifest as well as shape aspects of their social identity. Also important is the mechanics of conversation – for example, how we so seamlessly take turns when talking, how and for what purpose we tell stories, how we begin and end conversations. And this is just a small set of the topics that could be described as English Linguistics.

Can you describe your program at the University of Bern?

The BA in our Department is in English in general – Literature and Cultural Studies as well as Linguistics, and we aim here to provide a solid foundation in these topics, whilst ensuring students gain theoretical knowledge, analytical skills, and a breadth of exposure to work in these fields from different places and different time periods. I like to think of the MA, where students can specialise in either Literature or Linguistics, as a research orientation degree – they gain advanced theoretical insights, but in addition learn in a much more hands-on way how to do linguistics themselves, how to collect relevant language data, how to analyse it, how then to do something with it. I place great emphasis therefore on courses which introduce students to the joys and difficulties of fieldwork, as well as of language data analysis. So MA students with a Linguistics major will get their hands dirty, doing Linguistics and not just reading about it. We also work with the Faculty’s Center for the Study of Language and Society which has an MA in Sociolinguistics. This MA brings together many linguists across the faculty to produce a multilingual, interdisciplinary programme on language in society.

Who is the program for? How might the program benefit an English teacher in Switzerland?

Most of our students are of course at the BA level, and many of them want to become teachers of English. We’re very conscious then of this special audience and try to ensure that there are regular linguistics courses which will be of specific interest to future teachers – courses on second language acquisition, for example, or on bilingualism, as well as the basic courses on the structure and mechanics of the language. At the MA level, students often examine these issues in more detail. I have supervised MA theses on the acquisition of specific parts of English grammar that are often said to be especially problematic for Bernese students, such as the past tense.

Let’s talk a little about your research interests. One common theme connects dialect variation and mobility. Why is this important? What are some implications?

A lot of the dialect research in Anglophone countries has explicitly avoided mobile people or mobile communities. The first dialect studies in Britain, for example, deliberately sought out ‘NORMs’ (‘Non-mobile Old Rural Men’) because it was thought they spoke the purest dialect, least influenced by external influences. When sociolinguistic approaches to dialectology arrived in the 1960s, the study of dialect moved to some of the largest cities in the world, but again mobile people, people not brought up in that community, were still shunned. In the past 20 years or so we’ve been learning that mobile people are in fact extremely influential triggers of language and dialect change in communities, so we can’t really adequately investigate dialect change without considering them. My early research began by looking at dialects that had been formed by acts of migration – in England, and then later in New Zealand. More recently I’ve been interested in the more mundane and everyday mobilities (e.g. commuting) and how they can affect dialect. Given its effect on language change, and given that we are living in an increasingly mobile world, I don’t think we can adequately study dialect and ignore the effects of mobility. I also think it would be fascinating to see if there are any differences in the nature of our dialects when we are talking on the phone, or, for example, talking to passengers while driving a car, contexts where normal face-to-face interaction is disrupted in some way. In these contexts the speakers are either not directly looking at each other (and so can’t use facial expression and gesture in the same way) or are not even in the same place as each other at all. I’m surprised that very little research has examined this.

In 2009 you co-edited a special issue of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language on dialect death in Europe. Can you share some highlights or insights with us?

The title was Dialect death in Europe? – and the question mark was important! There have been many publications over the past 20 years or so which have suggested that dialect diversity has been decreasing in Europe, and in many places this is undoubtedly the case – France seems to be the clearest example of this. But we wanted in this volume to subject this view to some critical scrutiny. What we find is that while some dialects do seem to be losing some of their characteristic features, we are also seeing, often as a result of mobility, of internal migration and of immigration, new dialects being formed. Language and dialect are constantly changing, so of course some dialect features will die out. But that has always been the case. We wanted to reflect in that volume about how this dialect evolution was manifesting itself in different parts of Europe where dialect has different levels of status and official legitimization.

You’ve edited, authored, presented, taught, researched, and supervised – among other things. Which role is your biggest passion?

To be honest, my biggest passion is Nachwuchsförderung (there is no very satisfactory way of translating that into English!). Ever since I began my lectureship at Essex back in 1993, I’ve been supervising and coaching several PhD students, and I very much enjoy this role. I am still working, researching, and publishing with several of the students who I supervised, many of whom have gone on to successful academic careers around the world. I like to think I can transfer my passion about dialectology to them.

We caught you in time before you go on sabbatical from the beginning of February until the beginning of August 2013. What will you be up to?

I’ve been awarded the Linguistic Society of New Zealand Fellowship for 2013, so I will spend some of the time travelling around New Zealand, giving research talks, and discussing research with staff and PhD students across the country. The sabbatical will also give me the chance to complete some research I have been doing about the origins of New Zealand and Australian Englishes, about the dialect history of British English, and to get my teeth into a new project examining the structure and history of Falkland Island English. Having this block of time to burrow deeply into research is crucial for all academics.

It’s interesting that you live and work in Switzerland, where there are four official Swiss languages in addition to a collection of dialects. Have you done any research on Swiss dialects?

No, there are several excellent linguists here in Switzerland who work on Swiss dialects, and they are doing a great job. For dialectologists everywhere, though, Switzerland provides, of course, a wonderful example of how dialect can flourish. When public figures and policy makers in Britain and other places try to argue that speaking a dialect is detrimental to the country, we can point to Switzerland – and Norway – as shining examples of successful and prosperous nations where dialect is not criticised, trampled upon, denigrated, or deemed counterproductive.

A very special thank you, Dr David Britain, for sharing your research and, especially, for explaining the English Program at the University of Bern.

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Julie Mangold-Kecskemeti