In this episode we bring you our interview with Robin Queen. Based out of the University of Michigan, her work on language is situated at the intersections of language, gender, media, and cognition. In a nutshell, Queen endeavours to explicate the details of how our “mental representations of the social world” crisscross with our “mental representations of language.” Our discussion largely focused on the issues surrounding the use of media data for linguistic inquiry.
Aperitifs: As usual, I’ll point out a few gems that surfaced In the course of our conversation. First, the practical: Recently I’ve come across a fair amount of research that makes use of media data to answer questions that - in my humble opinion - are not answerable using this source. As such, I was keen to pick Robin’s brain on effective use of the media as a body of data. (Check out her recent book on the topic of media, "Vox Popular: The Surprising Life of Language in the Media".) This part of the conversation contains some of the most practically (as well as conceptually) useful tidbits for the working linguist. Principally, Robin emphasizes that the linguist must be honest with themselves about their priorities, as well as the scope and limit of their approach. Put simply, they must ask whether their research question can be appropriately answered using media data; recognize the limits of this type of source, and refrain from pushing beyond what is answerable. They must also ask themselves why some particular piece of media has grabbed their attention; does it faithfully address the topic they are pursuing? Both of these lines of thought depend on having first framing a scientifically tractable question that reasonably captures their interest. Second, the conceptual: We then explored how the media, as a commercial enterprise, contrives to portray a version of reality that reflects their commercial interests. Even the most cursory consideration of this fact invites a critical assessment of the quantity and quality of variation portrayed by the media, such as what kinds of linguistic variation are being presented by today’s media, and what exposure children receive to linguistic variation. Pertaining to children’s exposure to linguistic variation, Robin referenced a chapter by Rosina Lippa-Green entitled “English with an accent” which explored how heroes in Disney films use standard American English whereas non-heroes use non-standard varieties. Robin points out that although there are some online discussions pertaining to this topic, they are anecdotal in nature, and that in fact very little experimental work has been done on what (if any) effect this has on our perceptions of non-standard varieties of English. Third, the question: Finally, I leave you to mull over this idea at the intersection of language and cognition: How does media’s portrayal of linguistic variation reflect, or affect, our interpretation of the personality traits of those characters (i.e. introversion/extroversion, mental health, optimism/pessimism)? À la prochaine!
Note: This interview / post was conducted & composed by Selena Phillips-Boyle.