Mizuki Miyashita is a professor of linguistics and the director of the Linguistics Program in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Montana. She earned a Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Arizona; her dissertation was on phonology in Tohono O’odham (Uto-Aztecan), investigating diphthongs in descriptive, theoretical and applied aspects. The current focus of her research is documentary linguistics in Blackfoot (Algonquian, spoken in Montana and Alberta). She worked with the late Darrell Kipp on language documentation and application, and she has recorded lullabies and other songs, narratives, conversations, and isolated words in Blackfoot. She also collaborates with language activists among tribal colleges in Montana and trains Native American students in linguistics. In addition, she is a co-director of the 2020 Institute on Collaborative Language Research (CoLang 2020).

The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. Click here to see previous Member Spotlights.

When did you first join the LSA?

I first joined the LSA in 1998 when I was a graduate student at the University of Arizona.

How have you been involved with the LSA since you joined?

I have been a presenter, a panelist and a poster presenter for organized sessions. More recently, I attended two satellite workshops: the LSA workshop on Building Capacity in Linguistics and Endangered Languages at Tribal Colleges and Universities organized by Monica Macaulay, Alyson Reed, and Susan Gehr in 2017 and the Natives4Linguistics workshop organized by Wesley Leonard, Megan Lukaniec and Adrienne Tsikewa in 2018. I was part of the LSA-SSILA panel at the Symposium: Natives4Linguistics 2018 – Sharing Our Findings at the 2019 LSA meeting. I am also a member of the Committee on Endangered Languages and Preservation (CELP) and the Natives4Linguistics group, and I am serving on the CoLang 2020 Fellowship Review Committee.

What are you currently researching/working on?

Since I was a graduate student, I have been committed to conducting research that will contribute to the field of linguistics as well as to the communities of the languages researched. Currently, I am researching and documenting the rhythm and melody of Blackfoot words in collaboration with a Blackfoot language instructor at the University of Montana.

Prosody in Indigenous languages is relatively under-researched, although it is generally a very important component of language that both assists native speakers in registering the meaning of the words uttered and touches their heart. In my current research, I am describing the pitch movement throughout a word in addition to the identified pitch accent location, rather than labeling the pitch levels only by high and low, so that the description is closer to what speakers perceive.

As part of the broader impact of my work, I try to demonstrate how my research can be applied in pedagogy. In my work on pitch movement, I am collaborating with a community linguist to develop a pronunciation guide called Pitch Art that helps students learn pitch patterns. I have also been developing an online tool called Melodic Transcription in Language Documentation and Application (MeTILDA) in collaboration with the community linguist, a musicologist, and computer scientists. This tool lets teachers draw Pitch Art, and the scale of the pitch movement is adjusted so that it matches people’s visual perception. It also includes features for language teaching and learning.

I am also conducting community outreach, along with Susan Penfield, across the tribal colleges in the state of Montana, and we have created an information exchange venue among language activists and linguists called Collaborative Language Planning Project (CLPP). This is a collaborative project with Richard Littlebear, a language activist and a native speaker of Northern Cheyenne. Through CLPP meetings, participants from the tribal colleges and linguists exchange experiences and identify needs within communities for their language revitalization efforts. This project has been providing invaluable advice to the organizing committee for CoLang 2020 as well as the American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI), the Natives4Linguistics group and the CoLang Advisory Circle.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the field of linguistics today?

I believe that science exists not only to satisfy our curiosity but also to better our lives. As a science, linguistics finds its ideal when research outcomes come back to benefit society. Unfortunately, in today’s world this ideal is not often seen, except in some related technological fields. In my opinion, the connection between theoretical linguistics and applied linguistics is still weaker than it should be. The information coming out of the field does not touch people’s lives without them making a conscious effort to find it. I am interested to see how the field of linguistics will evolve so that what we discover and analyze will come back to the people who use or want to use their languages.

It is ironic that even the existence of the field of linguistics is not widely known, while virtually all people on Earth live with some type of language. However, this is the logical outcome of the typical education system, in which linguistics is not included in the curriculum while language learning is.

One way to address this issue is to encourage researchers and linguistics instructors to conduct outreach outside of their home institutions. Another way may be to conduct research or projects in collaboration with individuals from various disciplines and/or communities. Most important may be to design research projects in response to language communities’ needs, not only to support a theoretical point. CoLang 2020, which I am co-directing, promotes collaboration across disciplines, bringing together language activists, language teachers, researchers and students from language communities and academia. Besides providing cutting-edge training in language documentation and revitalization, it serves as a place for participants to meet and discuss issues that are important to language communities but not necessarily dealt with in the field of linguistics.

What, in your opinion, is the most important service the LSA provides to its members? To the field?

The LSA provides very important service to its members through its summer institutes, publications and news articles and especially through the annual meetings, which provide members with the venue to exchange their work and to connect with others from a wide range of fields and generations beyond their own institutions. The annual meeting often brings opportunities for the participating researchers and students with similar interests to join in new collaborations and partnerships. This networking venue is a significant service that the LSA provides to the field of linguistics, because new and exciting ways of understanding language and conducting language sciences emerge from it.