School of English

Kathy Conklin, Professor in Psycholinguistics

Kathy teaches on our MA Applied Linguistics and MA Applied Linguistics with English Language Teaching, and is also a course convenor.

She discusses her research specialisms and what she loves most about applied linguistics.  

How did you end up teaching in this area? 

"I speak multiple languages, so I’ve always been really fascinated by how we learn languages, how languages might interact in our minds and how we process them. 

To start, I didn’t know about applied linguistics as a field. My research passion led me towards it."

Kathy Conklin standing in front of a whiteboard, wearing a blue blazer over a pink top and smiling

What led you to a career in academia?

"I think that most of us in this area started out as English language teachers. For me it was about trying to figure out what’s going on with our students, what’s going on with ourselves when we learn languages, and how to make teaching easier.

I started out in a high school classroom, teaching French in the US. Then, I did what’s called the Peace Corps and I taught English in Nepal for two years. The first year I worked in a remote village school and the second year I worked for their Ministry of Education and helped with teacher training. Because of these experiences, I started thinking about research and became more interested in research and in learning how to carry it out. 

After working in Nepal, I went back to the US and did my master's and PhD. I was just really fascinated and wanted to learn more about how people learn and how we can better teach learners."

What do you enjoy the most about teaching applied linguistics? 

"I really enjoy working with the students, as they so often come with such varied life experiences and want to understand more about what’s going on in their field. 

Many of our students have experience as teachers themselves. We also get students who have come more for the discourse side of applied linguistics and are interested in business and health communication, often having worked in business or industry." 

We really do have a variety of students. It’s a nice diverse mix. The classroom is always exciting, and we have really good seminars because we get people with such wide perspectives.

Which module do you teach?

"My module is called 'Psychology of Language'. It's focussed on getting students to think about how we set up research to test language learning or language processing. It gives them the skills to go away from the masters and feel confident that they know how to set up a study to look at something, whether they are working in an educational setting, or in an office. They can be confident they’ve gained the skills to do that."

What's your current research focus?

"One of my primary research interests is looking at what we call formulaic language, and idioms are a prime example of this. So expressions like ‘piece of cake’. Obviously for kids, and second language learners, these are really difficult because being easy has nothing to do with cake! I’m interested in how second language learners, and kids learning their first language, learn and understand these kinds of formulaic sequences. 

I’ve also started to work a lot with industry partners. I did a big project with the BBC. They were interested in how diverse populations understand their online content, so we’ve done eye-tracking of their webpages, looking at how people with and without a university education understand and read them.

Right now we’re in the middle of a project with NHS Resolution, which is the legal arm of the NHS. When people complain to the NHS, NHS Resolution writes them a letter – and these can be difficult for the people receiving them to understand.

We’ve done a big comprehension and eye-tracking study with NHS Resolution, trying to help adapt their writing practice so that they can write letters that patients can easily understand when they receive them."

Any top tips for those considering this course? 

"In general, for this course you simply need a fascination with language. Everything we do has to do with language, whether it's looking at how language works in the boardroom and medical settings, or teaching language. So, you need to be fascinated with language."

Why do you recommend the MA Applied Linguistics at Nottingham?

"We have great experts in the field, for example in language and business communication, language and health communication. Then we also have leaders in the field of language and gender, and English language teaching. For students on our applied linguistics programmes, we can offer experts across the board."

We have various reading groups and research groups for postgraduates. There is a good research community and camaraderie. Our cohorts are not that big, usually 40 or 50 across the two MAs, and the students do their classes together. Students develop some really nice friendships.

How do you define 'success'?

"For me, if you’re successful, you should enjoy what you do. That’s the ultimate. I love what I do. Doing something that you love and feel passionate about – that means you’re successful."

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