Inspiring peopleSvenja Adolphs

Understanding the patterns of language
Head of School (English)
Svenja Adolphs
How does your work fit within the Cultures and Communication GRT?

My research is interdisciplinary and straddles the boundaries of humanities, social sciences and science. It is also fundamentally applied research: the research questions are regularly user-based and impact-oriented with applications that have repercussions in education, the digital economy, health sciences, business communication and intercultural analysis. The Cultures and Communication GRT offers an environment where this kind of research can be brought to bear on a range of research challenges both within and across its RPAs.

I get a real buzz out of the amazing new ideas and energy that can emerge
Can you explain what your research is about?

Language is central to any kind of human endeavour, yet we still know relatively little about the complex and dynamic patterns at play when we communicate with each other. My research aims to develop our understanding of those patterns that we can observe in everyday written and spoken communication.

For a long time, researchers mainly referred to their own intuitions when describing a language. However, technology now makes it possible to extract key patterns of language use at the touch of a button, using as a basis very large collections of spoken and written texts (language corpora). This has revolutionised our understanding of language used across different contexts. It allows us to address key questions, such as how frequent individual words and phrases are, how they tend to co-occur with other words and phrases, how and when new words and phrases enter a language, and the patterning between speech and gestures. So, in short, my research aims to develop better descriptions of the English language and, in turn, improve applications that are based on those descriptions.

What inspired you to pursue this area of research?

I’ve always been curious about language and communication, and why some uses of language seem to be more successful or lead to different outcomes than others. I remember being hugely inspired by reading some of the early research articles on corpus linguistics and its applications which made me want to explore how technological advances could improve language description even further.

I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time when I started my PhD at Nottingham. The School of English here was building one of the first "large scale" (for those days) corpora of contemporary spoken English in collaboration with Cambridge University Press. The project was led by my supervisor who is one of the most inspiring academics I know, and I was able to get closely involved in the construction and analysis of the corpus.

How will your research affect the average person?

We all regularly come into contact with applications that rely on advanced descriptions of the English language, including modern dictionaries and grammars or spellcheckers, for example. These tend to be informed by corpus linguistics and natural language processing. Equally, drawing on this kind of research allows us to develop more personalised information material based on communicative practices, in the area of health promotion, for example, that ensures that language is accessible to the target audience.

Research into cultures and communication helps us to understand what it means to be human
What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?

The greatest moments for me have probably happened during creative and productive research collaborations. I get a real buzz out of the amazing new ideas and energy that can emerge, often from a single meeting.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in your field?

Stay curious about advances in your discipline and open to ideas from other areas. And don’t get too disheartened when things don’t work out immediately – it’s important to take a long-term view of progress in academia.

What’s the biggest challenge facing researchers in your field?

The fast pace of the research environment means that researchers have to be flexible and quick to adapt to new trends. This includes trends that result from increased global connectivity and communication, emerging interdisciplinary directions, new skills and opportunities that come with new technological developments, as well as changes in the funding landscape. Navigating this context successfully can be a big challenge.

How does being based at the University allow you to fulfil your research aspirations?

The kinds of research challenges that are at the heart of our understanding of language and communication are often complex, and require the co-development of multi- and interdisciplinary approaches with colleagues and collaborators across and outside the university. The University of Nottingham actively fosters and supports this kind of interaction in a number of ways, and the GRT/RPA network is one example of this.

Global Research Theme
Cultures and Communication

Read Svenja's full profile

Svenja Adolphs is Professor of English Language and Linguistics in the School of English. She holds an MA and PhD from the University of Nottingham where she is the Head of School (English) and Director of the Centre for Research in Applied Linguistics. She is a member of the Capability Committee of the Economic and Social Research Council and a member of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.


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