Work in progress

The field of my PhD research was historical linguistics, more specifically English and the other Germanic languages. My PhD thesis was entitled The Personal Pronouns in the Germanic Languages, Berlin and New York: De Gruyter (1996, reprinted 2013).

My current research focuses on basic or primary universals of human language. Much of linguistics over the past half century has had a mathematical or computing focus; however, my origins as a medical student mean that I am interested in how our biology can account for language. Like many other researchers, I wish to understand how we evolved, biologically and culturally, the ability to communicate in a way that other closely related animals do not. Building on work in my doctoral thesis on complex morphology in pronouns, I am examining combinatoriality and symbolism more broadly. I am also interested in the nature of language variation and change and in pronoun systems in the world’s languages.

My other research area is English language teaching. I am the co-author of the PhraseBook for Writing Papers and Research in English, which is used by graduate students, university staff and researchers in over 30 countries. I am interested in how humans store language, not only as individual words but also as ‘chunks’ – as ready made pieces of language. Chunking is an important characteristic of how humans encode information. In addition, I plan to continue comparative research on English language education in Sweden and Japan to examine why Scandinavia is able to produce some of the best non-native speakers of English. Finally, I am a keen footballer and am interested in transferring techniques used in sports coaching, sports psychology and playing to language teaching in the classroom.


Basic universals of human language

I have long been intrigued by language universals – those characteristics that all human languages must share. It is a great puzzle that although we instinctively ‘know’ what human language is, it is surprisingly difficult to nail down concrete, incontrovertible universals. Naively, one might assume that it would be easy to state such apparent truisms as ‘all languages have nouns and verbs’, but this is more problematic than one might believe (cf. Croft, Tomasello). Nevertheless, if we hear people chatting in an unfamiliar foreign tongue on a train, although we cannot understand what they are saying, we sense they are using a human language like ours in a way that we do not with the whistles of dolphins, songs of birds or dances of bees. And the fact that, with sufficient exposure, any human child can learn any human language provides ample and repeated proof of the universals that must be present. It is astonishing that human languages can appear outwardly so different in their sounds, grammar and vocabulary, yet any human child can learn any human language without instruction. Why, then, cannot linguistics identify a full spectrum of universals when informally we can easily recognise the commonality of language and learning language is child’s play?

A few years ago, I met Joseph Greenberg at Stanford University, as I was interested in his work on pronouns. Professor Greenberg was a person of great knowledge and intellect. He wrote in his seminal study on universals that ‘we would prefer to have as few universals as possible … to deduce them from as small a number of general principles as possible’, but his ‘universals of grammar with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements’ was able to list few if any absolute universals. This was a highly significant negative finding.

However, one obvious and rudimentary universal we can recognise in Greenberg’s study is combination to make meaning. Different languages may have different patterns of combination, but all have combination to make meaning. This simple universal gives enormous power and precision to human language. Its appearance in various guises in diverse theories shows it to be basic and overarching. It has been put forward by Chomsky as ‘Merge’, by Jackendoff as ‘Unification’, and is a more universal mechanism than the narrow syntactic recursion proposed by Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch. It is the process combining phonemes to make meaningful units. It is the cognitive process underlying chunking (Bybee) and analogy (Fauconnier and Turner). It includes hierarchical and long-distance relationships. It enables discourse. And is it the mechanism linking the linguistic and extralinguistic – most fundamentally, it is the ability that enables us to link a concept in our head to something outside ourselves, symbolically, with our human interlocutor, i.e. combination enables reference.

Significantly, if we look at communication outside humans we find that this apparently simple ability is far from so. In contrast, it is observed in children early on – a child’s instinct to combine may be evidenced in reduplication, and children combine words meaningfully already from around 18 months.

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Personal pronouns in the world’s languages

I would like to investigate the validity of the theoretical framework put forward in my PhD thesis for the Germanic language to other languages, with the aim of establishing a broader theory of pronoun systems, and to examine the relatedness of the world’s languages in part on the basis of pronominal data (something that Joseph Greenberg had worked on) as words for ‘I’ and ‘you’ are probably found in all languages.

Although some preliminary research has been undertaken on pronoun systems in a global perspective, there is considerable variation of pronoun systems in languages of the world, and while it may well be a general property of natural languages that they possess devices for referring to entities mentioned elsewhere in or involved in the discourse (Radford), pronoun forms, their usage and meaning vary considerably in the world’s languages, so universal characteristics still require a great deal of further research.

I have recently completed a chapter on pronouns for a forthcoming volume on Old Frisian. Frisian is the language most closely related to English and is still spoken today in parts of the Netherlands and Germany.

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Learning English in Sweden and Japan

I am interested in why Scandinavia produces some of the best non-native speakers of English and what aspects of Scandinavian English-language education can be adopted in Japan. By the time they graduate, school-leavers and university students in Scandinavia are almost all fluent in English. Furthermore, Scandinavian schools achieve good levels of English across the ability range. What can we learn from best practice in other countries? My research examines various factors, both inside and outside the classroom.

The fact that Scandinavians speak excellent English is something we take for granted, but it is not a matter of course. Nor should it be treated as a matter of course that native English or Japanese speakers are comparatively ‘poor at foreign languages’. It is the result of a number of factors that Scandinavian students can speak a foreign language very well by the time they graduate, while a majority of Japanese, British and US students cannot. What do Scandinavian schools and universities do, and what factors in Scandinavian society produce such excellent English ability? The aim of my research is to make a preliminary attempt to unravel and outline what these might be.

I have lived in Scandinavia and Japan.

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Sports coaching and language teaching

I am a keen footballer and am interested in transferring skills from sports coaching, sports psychology and playing to the classroom in language teaching.