Students, Linguistics

Graduate Student Profile: Noortje de Weers, Linguistics

February 21, 2017

Noortje de Weers, a PhD student in the Department of Linguistics, never planned to study the English language. After graduating from high school in the Netherlands, she studied a variety of subjects at a liberal arts and sciences college. It was there that she took a course in sociolinguistics and decided that she wanted to pursue a PhD in the field.

De Weers now studies relationships between ethnicity and speech perception. She is investigating what she terms the “elusive phenomenon” of linguistic prejudice, or that “people have certain expectations about speakers based on preconceived cultural notions.” She explains, “sometimes those expectations are not very positive. I am keen on finding out where those expectations come from, and to what extent they can affect a listener’s perception of that other person.”

De Weers completed two masters’ degrees in-between that fateful undergraduate course and undertaking her PhD at SFU in 2015: one in English Language and Culture and one in English/Language Arts Teacher Education, both through Leiden University.  She also taught English at two different high schools for two years in the Netherlands. Her “great passion for teaching” carried forward to SFU: she teaches a non-credit course on Academic English through the Student Learning Commons, where she offers English writing instruction and personalized English improvement plans to English as an Additional language (EAL) students. Her love of teaching relates to her research, and stems from her undergraduate program, where she “had a great experience volunteering as a Dutch teacher at an asylum seekers centre.”

De Weers teaching at SFU. Photo: submitted.

De Weers came to SFU specifically because of its approach to the study of sociolinguistics. Here, she explains, sociolinguistics is recognized as a field in its own right, rather than as a sub-field, which drew her interest: “Most universities don’t actually have professors in applied linguistics or sociolinguistics; they are more focused on theoretical linguistics, which is not something that I am very interested in. I already knew what I wanted to do, so I just needed to find a program that would accommodate my plans, and that would have professors in the fields I was focusing on. SFU was just that!”

As a sociolinguist, de Weers studies the ways that languages and society interact. She feels that her position as an international student, and a non-native English speaker, affords her a strong perspective in her field. It gives her real-life experience with some of the communication difficulties that she learns about in class, and it raises her awareness of the intimate relationship between language and culture. The latter, she says, is what makes her a sociolinguist: “I’m convinced that the two cannot, and should not, be analyzed as divorced from one another.”

Additionally, she says, “it’s a great advantage to not be a native speaker of English when studying linguistics, since it made me much more aware of the grammatical underpinnings of the language in ways that native speakers probably never thought about. The field is still very much Anglo-centered, so being able to bring in knowledge of languages other than English is beneficial for everyone.”

De Weers takes time away from her studies to enjoy geocaching, which she likes because "you can do it all over the world." Photo: submitted.

As De Weers points out, “anyone can relate to language, since we all use it.” And that commonality of experience is part of what she finds interesting about her work. As an example, she notes that she, despite her awareness of it, is likely guilty of linguistic prejudice, the very phenomenon she studies. Her goal, though, is to be able to quantify the phenomenon and draw a link between culture, prior experiences and language: “I strongly believe that language and culture are interconnected, and hope to provide additional evidence of this with my research.”

While her project is still in its early stages (she will write and defend her proposal, and collect data in Vancouver and the Netherlands within the next year), this type of research seems especially important now, she says, “with racial tensions rising, and immigration being such a hot topic.” According to de Weers, “Refugees or immigrants are often perceived as out-group members in a community. This kind of attitude is usually translated into negative expectations, which may very well harm those people’s chances in life, regardless of how willing they are to act like the in-group. I am interested in when people are finally accepted as part of the in-group, and what role language plays in this process.”

As for the future of her work, de Weers is pragmatic yet hopeful: “I don’t think racism and prejudice will ever disappear; there’s too long a history for it to magically go away in the future. However, informing the public and pointing out possible communicative pitfalls that may cause people to get the wrong idea about others, and cautioning people to keep an open mind might make some small difference, and that is what I am aiming for. I think helping people realize that everyone makes assumptions about others, not only based on how they look but also how they sound, might help them become more conscious of it. I hope that my research may eventually influence hiring processes and public policy.”