Bridging gaps - a discussion workshop

What does it mean to bridge the gap between psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic approaches to multilingualism? Scholars who have been successful in doing interdisciplinary work were invited to the workshop Bridging gaps: Conceptual and epistemological approaches which was held at MultiLing last week.

Salikoko Mufwene sharing his experience from own interdisciplinary research at the workshop

Salikoko Mufwene is sharing his experience from own interdisciplinary research (Photo: UiO)

An interdisciplinary Center

One of MultiLing’s aims is to bring together psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic approaches to language and multilingualism. The Centre has, for instance, established three Colloquia to ensure a common perception of concepts and to provide arenas to discuss conceptual and methodological challenges across these disciplines.

A discussion workshop

With the aim to create a space for discussing overarching questions related to interdisciplinary research, four sets of questions were discussed at the workshop:

  1. What do we mean by interdisciplinary research? Which gaps are worth to be bridged? Which are not and why?
  2. What are the conceptual, epistemological and methodological challenges of interdisciplinary research? What are the ontological assumptions that complicate such collaborations? And how can we overcome these?
  3. What are the consequences of doing interdisciplinary research in times when academic institution and national and international funding bodies are still structured along the lines of disciplines?
  4. What are the political, economic and ideological realities in which these demands for more interdisciplinary research are anchored? Who benefits from such interdisciplinary collaborations and who does not?

Six scholars with personal experience in interdisciplinary research were invited to participate in the workshop, thereof four external guest researchers, Jean-Pierre Chevrot (University of Grenoble, France), Salikoko Mufwene (University of Chicago, USA), John A. Lucy (University of Chicago, USA) and Cécile Vigouroux (Simon Fraser University, Canada, and MultiLing's own Elizabeth Lanza and Hanne Gram Simonsen. Many of the participants also brought their thoughts to the discussion table during the open discussions.


Jean-Pierre Chevrot (Photo: UiO)

Bridging the gaps, respecting the disciplines

Jean-Pierre Chevrot was the first to share his thoughts on interdisciplinarity. He argued that interdisciplinary research is the future of language sciences. As an example, he presented a research project (The DyLNet project, a case study) involving three disciplines, sociolinguistics, network science and psycholinguistics. Although this project was a success, Chevrot emphasized that one should not take that for granted the success of interdisciplinary collaborations. Chevrot also pointed out that while bridging gaps, we should also respect disciplines. Each discipline meets its own challenges, and one of the interdisciplinary challenges language sciences face, is to integrate linguistic, social and cognitive aspects of language at the societal and individual levels.

Interdisciplinarity's costs and benefits

Salikoko Mufwene has extensive experience with interdisciplinary work, especially with combining linguistics with insights from biology. With examples from own research, he discussed costs and benefits in approaching interdisciplinary work.

Mufwene argued that adopting concepts from another discipline can come with a cost, one of which is being misunderstood by people in one's own discipline. Interdisciplinarity requires thorough explanation for the concepts borrowed from other disciplines. Challenging is also the issue of whether one understands accurately the ways in which concepts are used in the other disciplines. One example is the term “transmission”. In biology, this term means direct transfer, for example of genes from parents to children. In linguistics, on the other hand, we talk about (language) transmission as something that involves errors, trial, and active participation. By discussing this and similar questions with biologists, Mufwene has learned more about his own field, and he emphasized that when become interdisciplinary, you get another audience and you need to take this into consideration.

Not a mixture of disciplines

John A. Lucy argued that doing interdisciplinary research is as being bilingual: It is about being able to translate or switch between languages, not about mixing languages. Interdisciplinary research is not a mixture of disciplines, but the application of each. He also emphasized that it is important to be fully educated in all the fields in which you work. This is a main challenge when you do interdisciplinary work.

Lucy further talked about his one experience with interdisciplinary university programs, and he demonstrated the advantages of such programs. They can provide a better understanding of research phenomena and understanding beyond discipline purity often forces deeper analysis. Additionally, argued Lucy, interdisciplinarity gives the opportunity to communicate with a broader range of people, and to deal with larger issues.

Sociolinguistics as an interdisciplin

Cécile Vigouroux’ talk had a historical perspective. She illustrated how the disciplinarization of knowledge historically is linked to its institutionalization within university systems. The ways in which universities as loci of knowledge production and transmission have been imagined or envisioned, Vigouroux argued, have historically been central not only to the emergence of disciplinarity but also of that of interdisciplinary. She demonstrated how in the 1960s, when sociolinguistics emerged as a research area in the United States, it was defined as interdisciplinary, as it draw on field methods and paradigms from other fields, especially sociology. Vigouroux furthermore argued that interdisciplinarity does not have to be the most appropriate way of addressing the complexities of the contemporary world. One should be careful to present it as the new virtue – interdisciplinarity is the challenge, disciplinarily remains the norm.

Bridging the gap

Bridging the gap between psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic approaches to multilingualism is a complex question. The participants at the workshop argued that interdisciplinarity does not necessarily mean collaboration; one researcher can be interdisciplinary in his own work. When working together, researchers can choose to work closely in teams, or they can decide to just exchange papers. Whatever one chooses to do, one has to respect each other, be curious and have a common goal. A discipline is a language you learn to speak, and when you go into another discipline, you need to learn a new language.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The workshop was organised by Alfonso Del Percio and Guri Bordal Steien. Thank you! 

By Jorunn Simonsen Thingnes, Kristin Myklestu
Published June 7, 2016 8:59 PM - Last modified July 6, 2016 1:36 PM