Walking the talk: Language Sciences at UBC

Janet Werker, psychology professor and Canada Research Chair, is one of the world’s leading developmental psychologists.

There is a certain buzz in the air at the University of British Columbia; scientists, administrators, graduate students, and undergraduate students are all talking. They’re talking about a new initiative that brings together scholars from across the university, united by their common interest: language sciences.

The initiative is UBC Language Sciences, a platform for inspiring collaboration within a mix of disciplines where language sciences can flourish. Spearheaded by faculty from the departments of psychology, linguistics, and electrical and computer engineering, it connects researchers from multiple faculties–including Applied Science, Arts, Business, Education, Medicine, and Science–to imagine and start new research and teaching collaborations.

Language sciences represents a unique, yet broad spectrum that intersects and connects the areas of study related to language. From investigating children’s development of language, to examining dyslexia and recovery from stroke, to studying how meaning is made in endangered languages, to modelling the human vocal tract, UBC is an epicentre for groundbreaking research in the language sciences.

“Bridging UBC’s language sciences community is something we have been talking about for years,” says Dr. Janet Werker, co-chair of the initiative and professor in the department of psychology. “People are universally excited about the initiative. We have over 100 faculty and graduate student affiliates across UBC–it and keeps growing.”

Dr. Werker and co-chairs Dr. Bryan Gick, professor and head in the department of linguistics, and Dr. Sidney Fels, professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at UBC, are the driving force behind the initiative. With support from Marietta Hurst, a language and literacy educator and advocate, the initiative aims to build on and expand UBC’s diverse language research by strengthening its cross-disciplinary links. Ultimately this research will inform a new UBC-wide language sciences course that will available to all UBC students–and eventually the wider community.

“I believe the development of this interdisciplinary course will spread such a passion across many faculties and it is my hope to see the extension of such a course into the community.” says Hurst, a UBC alumnae who received her B.A. and M.Ed. from UBC.

Working together and sharing research between the collaborators benefits the university and our communities, both locally and globally. “Language connects us all,” says Werker. “This initiative leverages a community of scholars who study language sciences. New connections have been made between researchers and there are some interesting themes emerging as a result of us coming together.”

As UBC Language Sciences grows and expands, already it is playing a vital role in linking UBC to the community. Starting in January 2017, Language Sciences presents Language Science Talks, a series of talks by leading language sciences researchers from around the world. The first five talks are supported in part by the SSHRC Gold Medal awarded to Werker in 2015.

Not only is the research and teaching community excited about this type of interdisciplinary research and curriculum design, undergraduate students are as well. UBC’s Speech and Linguistics Student Association and UBC Language Sciences have teamed up to present the inaugural Language Sciences Undergraduate Research Conference on February 2 and 3, 2017.

When asked what the future holds for UBC Language Sciences, Janet Werker adds “Through the lens of this topic we’re hoping to help UBC achieve what the ideal of a university is. There wouldn’t be ‘university’ without the various forms of language–it’s the under-pinning of everything we do.”

Werker is one of six academics at UBC recently honoured with a University Killam Professorship, the highest honour UBC can confer on a faculty member. As part of the University Killam Professor Lecture Series, she is hosting a sold-out special screening and discussion of the acclaimed documentary Babies, on Monday, January 24, 2017. More.

If you’re interested in becoming a Language Sciences faculty or graduate student affiliate, or to learn more about the initiative, contact UBC Language Sciences:

Web: www.languagesciences.ubc.ca
Phone: (604) 822-7435
E-mail: language[dot]sciences[at]ubc[dot]ca