‘A bridge between theoretical linguistics and the practice’ – an interview with Jeannette Schaeffer

by Gisela Govaart, March 2015

Jeannette Schaeffer is full professor Language Acquisition. She specializes in language acquisition by typical, impaired, and multilingual populations. She earned her MA degree from Utrecht University in 1990, her PhD degree from UCLA in 1997, and was a Postdoc at MIT until 1998. From 1998-2011 she worked at Ben Gurion University in Israel as an Assistant and an Associate Professor. She has been affiliated with the University of Amsterdam since 2011.

Jeanette Schaeffer
Jeanette Schaeffer

“During my MA in Utrecht, I wanted to go abroad, because I thought Holland was a bit boring, so I looked for ways to go abroad. For my MA thesis I wanted to make a comparison between Dutch and Italian child language. Since at that time, there was no CHILDES database or anything, I had to go to Italy to collect data. I started writing letters to funding agencies, and I got a few hundred guilders here and there — enough to go to Venice and to Rome for 5 months. After graduating I wanted to go back. So again, I started writing to those agencies and got money to go there for a year. I did linguistic research, practiced my Italian, and most of all I had a great year. I really liked Italy, but they had about one PhD position a year and they were not going to give that to a foreigner. My professors (Longobardi and Cinque, both at the University of Venice at the time) suggested going to the USA. They were, actually, without me knowing, famous linguists, and their recommendation letters got me in, I think. So it just sort of happened that I became a professional linguist. I wanted to be abroad, to do something different and this was a way to do it. Later, during my PhD, I really became passionate about linguistics, and could no longer imagine doing anything else.”

“I am very lucky that I have been working in so many nice institutes. I did my PhD at UCLA, and a post-doc at MIT, at the other side of the States. After that I had to find a real job, and there were not that many jobs around. The year I applied there were two jobs right up my street: one in Israel, and one in Jamaica. It took me a while to make the choice. Jamaica seemed like fun, but I knew that there are more serious linguists in Israel. I lived in Be’er Shebva, a town in the South of Israel, for about ten years. It was a very interesting period, both work-wise and socially, but it is not an easy country to live in, because of the eternal political and religious conflicts. After 4 or 5 years, I realized that people expected me to take sides, and that made it difficult as well. But the language situation is extremely interesting, as there is lots of bilingualism. In the 90s there was a huge immigration from Russia, after the fall of the Berlin wall. Especially in Be’er Sheva, there was a huge population, so we conducted a lot of studies on Russian and Russian child language.”

“Before I started to focus on impairments, I concentrated on on language acquisition in different languages with typically developing children. I compared Dutch with English and Italian; later, when I worked in Israel, I also included Russian and Hebrew child language. Later on, I became interested in how children with some sort of impairment acquire their mother tongue. Recently, I have been studying a group of children with specific language impairment (SLI), and a group of children with high-functioning autism. They seem to have very complementary impairments. Children with SLI are often characterized as children who mainly have a grammatical impairment, whereas children with autism are usually very good at grammar. Children with autism have other problems, mainly with the pragmatics of languages, the social communication. I was interested in seeing if I could show that grammar and pragmatics are two different components in language that can be impaired independently, because that would give some evidence for the idea that they are separate components of language.”

“I just finished analyzing all of the data, and it seems to be the case that there is a sub-group of children with autism that is only pragmatically impaired, who are good at grammar. There also is a group of children with autism that do have a grammatical impairment. With SLI, we see that all the 28 children we tested have a grammatical impairment, and a sub-group of about 10 or so has an additional pragmatic impairment. For this latter group there seems to be some co-morbidity of pragmatic and grammatical impairments in children with SLI. Yet, 18 children with SLI are grammatically, but not pragmatically impaired, and we see a lot less co-morbidity in children with autism. So the autism and the SLI subgroups show that grammar and pragmatics can be impaired independently. In that sense, I find evidence for the hypothesis that grammar and pragmatics are separate components.”

“I think the model of language consists of at least the lexicon, pragmatics, and grammar, which I would say is an umbrella term for phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics together. I do not want to defend the modularity hypothesis like people did in the old days, like Jerry Fodor and Noam Chomsky did, because their modules were encapsulated and would not interact with any other module. I do believe there is interaction, and I am intrigued by the question of what the interaction and the division of labor is between all these components. My main research question really is how language and its different subcomponents interact with other parts of cognition. Where do I find correlations, where not? And then, if you find correlations, the big challenge of course is to find out whether this is a causal relationship.”

“Now in this new position as full professor I have to manage a lot. It is a challenge to keep it all together, especially in these turbulent times, but I am enjoying it. I am also getting to know the structure of the university better. I have only been in Amsterdam for 3 years. I still do not know everybody in the faculty. It’s a steep learning curve, but I surely enjoy getting to know all these new people.”

“One of my aims is to build a stronger bridge between theoretical linguistics and the practice, where the speech therapists work, and where teachers have to deal with children with language impairment and do not have enough knowledge to do that yet. This also has to do with this new law in Holland, ‘Passend onderwijs’, where more kids with impairments have to be in regular education. We theorists have to make our results applicable and usable for the people in the field. In Israel I had PhD students who were speech therapists themselves, who came to do PhDs with me. That was a beautiful way to build bridges with the practice. Another way to go is to organize workshops. Two years ago, I helped Anne Baker organize a “Practitioners Day”, tagged on to a bi-annual European workshop on Specific Language Impairment, which was held here in Holland. We invited all the speech therapists in Holland to this day. There we tried to make available what was presently being discussed on SLI among linguists and psychologists at a European level, but in more accessible terminology. I think more of these types of workshops are necessary.”

“My free time I try to spend with my family, do fun things with them. My children are 8 and 6, and my partner and me enjoy taking them to children’s tours in museums, for example. I try to give them an interesting, cultural education, and make them aware of the fact that the world is a very international place. Of course, Amsterdam is always very good for that. When I go out with my 8-year-old, she hears a lot of languages. She can actually distinguish them, because she grew up with a lot of languages: Dutch, English, Hebrew and French. Unfortunately, only the English and the Dutch survived.”

“Amsterdam is my final destination. I have been very lucky, because you cannot really choose your city in this type of profession. But if I had to choose a city in the world where I would have to end up, Amsterdam would definitely be in the top 3.”


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