Research is not only sitting in front of your computer for hours

I am doing my PhD in Linguistics at Edinburgh. However, I’ve just found myself travelling to a big island in the Mediterranean Sea, meeting people with striking linguistic backgrounds and chatting about my research with enthusiastic listeners. I also happened to eat ravioli with mint and cheese (“culurgiones”), and sweets made of boiled grape (“thiriccas”), and of ricotta and saffron (“pardulas”). If any or all of the above sound appealing to you, here’s how I came to Sardinia to test bilingual speakers of my own language – Italian – and their own – Sardinian.

Scotland or Sardinia? Sheep grazing in the countryside

Scotland or Sardinia? Sheep grazing in the countryside

I study bilingualism, and I am interested in the relationship between language and other cognitive abilities, such as attention. I am carrying out this research within the AThEME project, which aims at digging into the European multilingual experience. Besides the study of language and cognition, one important goal of this program is to shed light on minority languages in Europe. And Sardinia presents an ideal opportunity to achieve both aims. Here, talking about bilingualism is usually not about advantages in cognitive functions, but about individual and collective identity. So I am happy that thanks to this project I have the chance to carry out cognitive experiments with speakers who are representative of a big share of European citizens.

My research looks into the question of whether bilingual speakers handle their competing languages in the same way as they handle other competing tasks. If this is the case, I also want to find out whether bilinguals actually exploit the link between language and attention, for example, by developing strategies to deal with ambiguous sentences. Since they make you keep multiple options open at the same time, ambiguous sentences are expensive for attention. As bilinguals constantly juggle multiple languages, do they adapt to situations that are expensive for attention and develop some kind of short-cuts to deal with them?

Leaflets in Sardinian about bilingualism

Leaflets in Sardinian about bilingualism. Top: “Multilingualism is the normality in this world”, bottom: “Knowing multiple languages is good for you: begin with Sardinian”.

To test this idea, I created two experiments: the first is to test the hypothesis that yes, bilinguals use similar means to deal with competing tasks and competing languages. I show pictures of familiar objects to my participants and ask them to name them in either one language or in the other. This test is long, fairly boring, and confusing. Then, I ask them to take an attentional test in which they have to press a key when they see letters in a certain sequence and another key when they see a different sequence. This test is tricky, actually excruciating according to some. But don’t worry: both tests are standard experiments commonly administered to naive volunteers all around the world. By doing them together, I want to see if the performance in the linguistic test is related to the performance in the attentional test.

It’s hard not to indulge on pardulas, sweets of ricotta and saffron.

It’s hard not to indulge on pardulas, sweets of ricotta and saffron.

My second experiment aims to see if bilinguals use any short-cuts when dealing with ambiguities. So I play them loads of almost meaningless sentences. While they hear these sentences, they see pictures on the screen. If the sentence is about a waitress talking to a granny who is very happy, I show them pictures of a waitress and of a granny (and of some other things, because you need to be a bit sadistic anyhow). Then I ask them who is happy, and they answer by pressing a key. In the middle of all this, I record how they look at the pictures with an eye-tracker. By doing this, I can see how they interpret the sentence while they do it: what their eyes are focused on, what they answer, and the relationship between gaze and answer. This can show me if they use any strategy to solve ambiguities, such as relying on the order of presentation of the images or on a linguistic rule.

 Dolores and Maria Antonietta (Istituto Bellieni, Sassari), who recruited my participants in the North of Sardinia.

Dolores and Maria Antonietta (Istituto Bellieni, Sassari), who scheduled participants in the North of Sardinia.

So, this is what I brought with me on my trip: a laptop with my experiments, a portable eye-tracker, and a questionnaire through which I ask my exhausted participants to tell me about at what age they learnt the languages they know, in what contexts they use them, how well, and so on. Of course I also brought socks, a pyjama and a toothbrush, if you were wondering.

I am travelling to different locations to run my experiments: Cagliari in the South (I’ll skip comments on moving from Scotland to the southern coast of a Mediterranean island in spring) and various villages near Sassari and Nuoro in the North. In these places, I sit in a quiet room and I test people. I am inviting young adults who are either bilingual or monolingual (who only speak Italian, even if they usually understand some Sardinian: but there are not many of them!). I am testing both monolinguals and bilinguals because I need to compare their behaviour to say if they are different.

No need to comment on the Sardinian coasts!

No need to comment on the Sardinian coasts.

I recruit participants thanks to contacts given to me by my supervisor, of Sardinian descent herself. These people are calling all their friends to pitch in for my experiment. Participants come, take the experiment and they are happy about it, and curious. They usually ask me various questions about the tests and we end up chatting about my research, Sardinia, language, and all sorts of things. They thank me; they often use the third person courtesy form and call me a doctor (in Italy, this is common with people who hold a university degree). All this respect, awareness and enthusiasm is pouring confidence in my work. By discussing it with them, I am understanding my research better, and the beauty and dignity of it. Not bad, you know.

Giuseppe Corongiu and Francesco Cheratzu at Condaghes Publishing Company, Cagliari. These gents helped me recruiting participants and hosted me and my experiments.

Giuseppe Corongiu and Francesco Cheratzu at Condaghes Publishing Company, Cagliari. These gents helped me recruiting participants and hosted me and my experiments.

I still have about thirty people to test and loads of kilometres to travel. But I am feeling positive about my field-work. For sure, testing here is way different to testing in the safe, stale lab in the belly of the university campus. Things are not in the right place most of the time – and I am thinking about experimental sessions as well as organizational aspects. But I can deal with that: it is challenging as a researcher, and enriching from a personal point of view.

So, if you go for academic research, you may find something more than lonely sessions in front of your computer – such as people who care about what you do, pardulas and warm sunny skies.