Research Statement

My research is primarily motivated by offering language learners an opportunity to find their voice and in doing so, merging linguistic and psychological theories and methods is necessary. My previous studies in the neurobiology of language led to my research of first language acquisition from the perspective of speakers with developmental delays. Through discourse and conversation analysis, I studied therapy sessions for children with Autism and compared two types of therapeutic models, one focusing on lexicon, another focusing on affect. The results demonstrated a striking difference in learner communication between these therapies, for which I argued that sustained therapy sessions that focus on emotional affect yields more complete and genuine linguistic input and output, and in turn, allows the language learner to utilize many communicative modalities (e.g., gesture, intonation). By engaging the student from his/her perspective and learning from his/her affect, a more robust platform for language learning emerges.

My dissertation delves into the role of empathy in language processing with the ultimate goal of exposing the behavioral and neurological components that comprise social and linguistic empathy. Linguistic Empathy, which reflects the speaker’s perspective toward entities or participants mentioned in the sentence (e.g. the agent or the patient of the action described in it), is an underrepresented pragmatic phenomenon in the literature, and is an underutilized tool in language teaching. I have administered psycholinguistic experiments using behavioral and neurophysiological (EEG) methods that correlate a speaker’s sensitivity to violations in Linguistic Empathy with their Social Empathy behavior. Once this correlation was established, these experiments could be redesigned and administered as a diagnostic for empathy deficits or as a language acquisition tool that focuses on how perspective taking operates in a given language.

The next step in my research is to further delineate the understanding of Linguistic Empathy and perspective. By utilizing similar behavioral and neurophysiological mediums, the nuances of linguistic empathy hierarchies can be explored in a controlled environment. Linguistic Empathy hierarchies are driven by agency, egocentricity, and concreteness of sentential entities with relation to the speaker, and further defining the components of linguistic hierarchies will provide nuanced understanding of empathy and perspective acquisition. The experiments developed during my dissertation and updated with these new specifications will be issued to second language speakers as a method of measuring and exploring sensitivity to Empathy in non-native speakers. These experiments will explore crucial differences both in the behavioral and the cognitive differences in Empathy. Articles from these experiments will apply to a range of disciplines, from second language studies to psychology.

Additionally, I plan to explore empathy and language in the wild through conversation and discourse analyses. Empathy as a social and linguistic phenomenon can take other pragmatic forms, such as intonation, prosody, or gesture. Quantitative studies that explore native English conversation, second language conversation, and foreign language conversation can delineate empathy gaps cross-culturally, and aim to close these gaps. This sociolinguistic research will first be the subject of conference presentations and journal articles before exploring its applications. Empathy behavior in both linguistic and social forms, as expressed through conversation and intonation, can inform how individuals as well as specific languages utilize and express Empathy. With Empathy as both a cultural and a linguistic phenomenon, these studies will shed light on new directions for second language acquisition.