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Jost Gippert: Our Featured Linguist!

"Buenos dias", "buenas noches" -- this was the first words in a foreign language I heard in my life, as a three-year old boy growing up in developing post-war Western Germany, where the first gastarbeiters had arrived from Spain. Fascinated by the strange sounds, I tried to get to know some more languages, the only opportunity being TV courses of English and French -- there was no foreign language education for pre-teen school children in Germany yet in those days. Read more



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François Grosjean, Université de Neuchâtel

François Grosjean
When I think about my first linguistics course, my mind wanders back to a large lecture hall in the mid-sixties at the University of Paris. Around 300 of us were attending a lecture on English Linguistics taught by Antoine Culioli. Suddenly, in his quiet voice, Culioli asked, "Is François Grosjean there?". I raised my hand and he continued, "Tell me, in British English, would you say ...(X)... or would you say ...(Y)...?". Because of my secondary schooling in England, I was one of the (quasi) native speakers that lecturers would call upon as linguistic informants. I don't remember the two alternatives Culioli gave me but I believe they concerned some very subtle difference in the use of a preposition. With 299 pairs of eyes looking at me, and not really seeing how the two alternatives diverged, I ventured, "The former, I think!". Culioli nodded his head and replied, "Yes, that's what I thought". He continued his lecture and I sat back and breathed a sigh of relief. Since then, I have the greatest respect for people who are informants!

That first linguistics course was part of the English Philology Certificate at the Sorbonne. Culioli was just beginning to develop his Theory of Enunciative Operations and many of us were struggling to understand its main characteristics. Culioli, though, was very open to other aspects of linguistics and he kindly accepted to be my advisor for my Master's thesis on English-French bilingualism in Paris. I chose this topic not only because of my own bilingualism and my hidden wish to understand who I was (at least linguistically) but also because I had been captivated by Weinreich's Languages in Contact and by Haugen's The Norwegian Language in America. Culioli and I also took part in the May 68 events in Paris and we would quite often find ourselves being interviewed by the same English-speaking media, most notably the BBC.

Because of my knowledge of English, I was a teaching assistant in a phonetics lab by the age of 20 and I obtained my first real university position teaching English to French students when I was 23. This was at the Université de Paris VIII-Vincennes (now Paris 8) where I taught oral language comprehension and production.

As I was looking for someone to do my Ph.D. with on language processing, I met Harlan Lane who had come to Paris as a visiting professor for a year to give seminars in psycholinguistics, experimental design and statistics. I attended all his seminars and was totally captivated. I did my doctorate with him and then accepted his invitation to come to the United States to work with him on American Sign Language at Northeastern University. I became enthralled by the beauty of that language and by the history of Deaf people, and for a number of years we conducted research together on the psycholinguistics of ASL. I then moved into spoken language research (perception and production) and did much of my preparation of stimuli at the Speech Communication Group at MIT. This was an exciting time as William Marslen-Wilson and Lorraine Tyler, among others, were revolutionizing the field by insisting on the on-line and interactive nature of language processing.

Since I had worked on bilingualism during my studies in Paris, it was only natural that I should come back to it later on. I taught a course on the topic at Northeastern and, encouraged by Einar Haugen who had become a mentor and a friend, I wrote my first book on the subject, Life with Two Languages. All this led to my doing experimental work on bilingualism, thanks to an NSF grant, as well as writing about the bilingualism of the Deaf. When I came to Switzerland and founded the Language and Speech Processing Laboratory at the University of Neuchâtel, I continued my research in psycholinguistics and phonetics, concentrating on French this time, and opened up a computational linguistics section.

My work in various branches of linguistics have made me a firm believer in interdisciplinary collaboration within the language sciences, both in teaching and research. I helped set up the undergraduate interdisciplinary Linguistics Program at Northeastern and, a few years later, the interdepartmental Language Sciences Program at the University of Neuchâtel. I also believe that as active researchers --if our research lends itself to it-- we should be open to collaborating with applied fields. Thus, at Neuchâtel, we worked on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) aids with a local company, and we developed a battery of on-line listening comprehension tests in French to be used with aphasic patients. I have also written about the right of Deaf children to grow up bilingual with sign language as one of their two languages.

Has my journey in linguistics been a good one? It's been wonderful. Have I had enough? Not at all. I remain as intrigued about language and language processing as I was back in the sixties in that large lecture hall in Paris.