Exploring Chinese Linguistics

BYU hosted the 28th session of the North American Conference on Chinese Linguistics.

IMG_8326PROVO, Utah (May 5, 2016)—In 1988, a group of professors at The Ohio State University (O.S.U.) had just finished the third Ohio State University Conference on Chinese Linguistics when they decided to broaden their vision. Instead of limiting it to a single school, why not increase the scope? The next year, O.S.U. hosted the first North East Conference on Chinese Linguistics. It was renamed and became the North American Conference on Chinese Linguistics, an annual event hosted by a different college every year, attracting leading experts in Chinese linguistics from around the world and focused on improving the study and teaching practices in Chinese linguistics.

BYU hosted the 28th session of the N.A.C.C.L., under the direction of Dana Bourgerie, professor of Chinese. The conference covered three days, with students and instructors interacting with one another in workshops and special lectures, all relating to this year’s theme: language diversity and variation.

“I loved the fact that we could get our students involved and interacting with world-class scholars,” Bourgerie said. “We’re not in Los Angeles or New York, so for our students to rub shoulders with really top-notch scholars, that’s really helpful to them.” The chance to see linguistics in action was invaluable.

The conference began on Thursday with a visit to Provo Wasatch Elementary, where attendees got a firsthand look into Utah’s dual immersion program. The program began in 2008 and aims at helping children pick up a second language early in their development. Students spend half the day in their target language – whether it be French, German, Spanish, Portuguese or Chinese – and the other half in English.

After watching the program in action, conference goers returned to BYU for two workshops: “Principles of Language Assessment,” led by Associate Dean Ray Clifford, and “Using Language Corpora for Linguistic Research and Teaching,” led by professor of linguistics Mark Davies.

Dr. James H-Y Tai delivered the plenary speech on Saturday, entitled “Language Variation and Aging: Construction of a Complexity Metrics for Chinese.” His remarks dealt with the relationship between aging and language attrition (i.e., an individual’s loss of language over time). Such research is of especial importance to BYU. “We do so much language teaching at BYU,” Bourgerie said, specifically mentioning the retraining of senior missionary couples and mission presidents in mission languages. Tai’s research raises questions as to whether or not seniors can use the same language-learning programs as young adults, or whether it behooves the creation of specialized classes.

Not only that, but Tai argued that the same metrics used to measure age-related language attrition in Chinese can be used toward research into Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, helping to better detect, understand and treat the two. Tai based his claim (in part) in research that showed that language, speech and reading comprehension were variously affected depending on the portion of the brain hit by a stroke.

Of course, much of what was discussed at the conference belonged in the realms of research and theory. However, that doesn’t diminish its importance in any respect. “Good theory is the basis of really good practice,” Bourgerie said. “Basic research just talks about the way things work . . . and that’s important because, if not for that, people can’t come along and solve the problems.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.