Dr. Zhiying Zhong on Ecolinguistics

December 17, 2018

Dr. Zhong began considering a visit to SFU after a previous visiting scholar told her how she enjoyed her time abroad here, and as it happened, this turns out to be a prime place to pursue her studies in ecolinguistics. A student in Communications at SFU, Sibo Chen, published the first quantitative meta-analysis of ecolinguistics research just two years ago, the same moment when Dr. Zhong began her study of ecolinguistics at SCAU. Now SCAU must be missing her fiercely, because Dr. Zhong has crossed the Pacific to visit this place above the inlet where she now works with her faculty advisor and co-advisor, Dr. John Nesbit and Dr. Sepideh Fotovatian.

The South China Agricultural University has a long history of study in ecology. When one professor in the university, Dr. Guowen Huang, conducted a course on ecolinguistics and promoted this area of study in China, many researchers in China started to move toward this emerging field. At that time, Dr. Zhong was a professor of the School of Foreign Languages at SCAU whose previous work focused on applied linguistics. SCAU developed a PhD program in ecolinguistics in 2016, the first ecolinguistics PhD program in China, and now Dr. Zhong is bringing her research from applied linguistics of language learning to explore new territory using ecolinguistics.

The applied (as opposed to descriptive or theoretical) dimension of linguistics includes research such as testing second language vocabulary size or comparing how second-language learners raised in different language families process high-frequency formulas in a new language. That's where Dr. Zhong started her research life: testing exactly those topics in language use. Since moving to ecolinguistics, she's turned her attention to questions of how language influences our behaviour. Dr. Zhong introduced me to work by Schultz (2001), who explains ecolinguistics with the logic that language influences our interpretations and predispositions, and so our thoughts and actions. How then should we use language, and how do the ways we use language actually cause us trouble or set us up for success? That kind of question needs a premise: what kinds of success, what kinds of trouble, what kinds of goals might we have in mind to begin with? In ecolinguistics, as Dr. Zhong explained it to me, the premise connects with ecological relationships. Specifically, most work in ecolinguistics takes the premise “that the aim of the research area is to preserve relationships that sustain life.”

If you like life, you might just like ecolinguistics. With harmonious life on Earth as our goal, the fruit of ecolinguistics should be something to love indeed. But what’s the nature of work that Dr. Zhong's ecolinguistics entails?

One of the projects Dr.Zhong's working on here above the Inlet has been to explore dictionary definitions for anthropocentric uses of language. (“Anthropocentric” happens to be among my pet favorite words, and means “human-centered.”) She has explored Chinese and English dictionaries, looking at definitions of resource, plant, and animal words in, among others, "the most widely used learner dictionary for school children in China," the Modern Chinese Dictionary. For example, a teaching dictionary she used for one study defined coral only as an "object for playing and appreciation" that "can also be used as ornaments.” The natural life of corals, and even the fact that corals are alive, were totally left out, leaving a definition entirely based on objective uses that a piece of coral might have for humans. This is an example of discourse analysis, of a branch that can be called harmonious discourse analysis. And, depending on that Dr. Zhong does with her research, it might one day literally be the textbook example of anthropocentrism. For now, it's just one example from a study by Zhong and her colleagues in which more than half of the studied dictionary definitions were found to contain unecological language belonging to "destructive discourse" (upcoming, 2018).

The goal of Dr. Zhong is simple and old-fashioned: to improve our world by doing the right thing. In this case, that right thing means studying language to illuminate how the ways we use language connect with the ways we think, and how the ways we think connect with actions — actions that always have meaningful consequences for the relationships that sustain our lives. By illuminating how learning dictionaries portray the world anthropocentrically, she's building a path to inhabit our shared world in a more harmonious way.