A Message from Katie Bernstein--A Note from a Legitimate Applied Linguist
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Posted by: Katie Bernstein
March, 2011; Chicago; my first AAAL conference.
A classmate from Berkeley, Billy, and I clung together like tourists with passports hidden in our belts. We hardly spoke to anyone. We attended every session we could. We took lots of notes. We befriended some nice people who were running a book display. We rejoiced in finding a drink ticket on the floor. We heard Jim Gee and Chuck Goodwin and Michael Silverstein and Mary Louise Pratt and Leanne Hinton and Diane Larson-Freeman speak. We whispered that they looked just like, or not at all like, what we had imagined from their writing. We stayed with friends in different suburbs of Chicago and parted ways at the bus stop each night, giddy and exhausted.
It was overwhelming. But it was also exhilarating. We suddenly saw that the “language” that we were learning to speak in our classes and that we were beginning to use to shape our own research was not just a private language, unique to our classmates and professors; it was the language of a discipline, our discipline: applied linguistics. This was it, we decided. We had found our “people.”
That year, and in the years that followed, I faithfully attended each AAAL conference. My advisor, Claire Kramsch, wisely and generously set aside money each year to make sure that her grad students could come to the conference. She knew before we did that coming to AAAL meant keeping a finger on the pulse of the field. What are people talking about? And how? More than any reading I do, coming to AAAL feels like a window into the soul of our discipline.
A few years into my AAAL-going, however, I had a crisis of faith. My research is in preschool classrooms, contexts into which few other applied linguists venture (except maybe to drop off their children). As I failed, year after year, to find more than one or two papers in the AAAL program about preschool children, I began to doubt that I could be a legitimate applied linguist and study very young learners. But the theories and methods I was using to make sense of my research context were the same theories and methods that others at the conference were using, too. I forced myself to recall that initial feeling of finding my people. I stuck around. I had a paper accepted. Then another one. I got over the feeling of illegitimacy. Mostly.
Last spring, I had the happy surprise of winning the first AAAL dissertation award. Part of the joy I felt upon hearing the news was the feeling of being recognized, and perhaps recognizing myself, as an applied linguist. Part of my pleasure, too, was in seeing my four-year-old participants be recognized as legitimate language learners in our field.
As the research contexts discussed at AAAL continue to diversify—classrooms, courtrooms, boardrooms—I know that not all AAAL members rejoice in that expansion. I’ve heard eulogies for the days when everyone was part of the same conversation about university foreign language teaching. But a field is not its research participants or research contexts. Our theories, our methods, and even our debates about our theories and methods are what constitute our discipline and our “language.” And it is those debates and that shared “language” that keep me coming back for more.
So, yeah, I study preschoolers. And I still get excited about finding drink tickets. Applied linguists do those things sometimes. At least this one does.