The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. If you would like to recommend an LSA member (including yourself) for a future Member Spotlight, please contact Brice Russ, LSA Director of Communications.

Click here to see previous Member Spotlights.

Claire Bowern, Yale University

Claire Bowern headshot

Claire Bowern is Associate Professor of Linguistics at Yale University, and a 2014-2015 Public Voices Fellow. Her research involves language documentation and historical linguistics, with a focus on the Indigenous languages of Australia. She is a graduate of the Australian National University (BA, Linguistics and Classics) and Harvard (PhD, Linguistics, 2004).

Q:  When did you first join the LSA?

I first joined the LSA shortly after I came to the USA as a grad student. I came to the US in 1999 so must have joined then or in 2000. I wanted a subscription to Language and the annual conference sounded fun. It was a great chance to see what was going on in the field other than in my department. It was a bit of an eye-opener, though -- coming from Australia, where pretty much all the linguists know each other!

Q:  Can you briefly describe your involvement with the LSA during the time you’ve been a member?

I've been a fairly regular attendee at LSA meetings since joining in graduate school. I've also taught at two Institutes (2007 at Stanford and 2013 at U.Mich), which I've really enjoyed. I've gradually become more involved in a few other areas, such as the Ethics Committee and the Endangered Languages Committee (CELP), and I'm an Associate Editor of Language at the moment.

Q: What will you be working on as a Public Voices fellow? 

Yale has a project for faculty to work with journalists to make academic research more accessible to the public and a greater part of public debate. There's obvious scope for this with language endangerment. And we've seen over the last few years that there's a great deal of public interest in using language to find out about the past (Quentin Atkinson's research on language dispersal made it to the top of the most emailed articles in the New York Times, for example) but linguists are under-represented in the media in comparison to biologists and psychologists. But a formal training in linguistics is really useful for approaching all sorts of language questions, even those beyond a person's narrow subfield.

An informal interest of mine has been the way in which folk linguistics makes it into parenting advice. One of the 'perks' of parenting is being showered with unsolicited (and often conflicting) advice about all sorts of topics, which makes it easy to study language acquisition and socialization ethnographically. For me, this doesn't have much impact beyond curiosity, but for many families, this advice has lasting consequences for them and their children. One example would be the way in which bilingualism and multiple language exposure is encouraged for Anglo, middle-class children, but discouraged for others. Linguists have a role to play in drawing attention to the ways in which language is used to justify decisions that have nothing to with language per se, and a lot to do with enforcing stereotypes. In the Public Voices Fellowship program, I'll be working with other academics and journalists to learn more about how to get research to have a bigger impact on public debate.

Q: What is your own research about?

I do historical linguistics and language documentation, with a primary focus on Australian Aboriginal languages. To be honest, between those two topics, that pretty much covers the whole field... But I'm especially interested in ways in which data from Australian languages can shape our view of 'language' more generally. Australian languages are a great set of test cases for all sorts of research questions, from the most effective documentation methods, to the best ways to make the most of archival recordings and poorly transcribed data, to questions about how languages change over time, how they split, and what happens during language contact. Also, I work on developing computational tools for investigating language history. My fieldwork has involved working with the last speakers of languages in Northern Australia, as well as archival work with language no longer spoken. I do informal advising to language groups on documentation and revitalization projects.

At the moment, I'm involved in several different projects. I was recently awarded an NSF grant "Language as a Window on Prehistory." I'll be working in several different areas over the next three years. One is to make my 775,000 word comparative database of Australian languages more freely available, as access conditions permit. Another is to use data from that database for new research. For example, last year one of my graduate students, Emily Gasser, and I started testing generalizations about phonotactic structures of Australian languages, based on the database data. We were able to considerably refine earlier work in this area; our work revealed a great deal more diversity amongst Australian languages than had previously been assumed. We are now ready to expand that work. I have a project identifying wordlists from unidentified Australian languages. I'm also doing a lot of traditional comparative-method reconstruction for different areas of the country and different parts of the lexicon. Having a large comparative database opens up a lot of potential for testing new theories about change (particularly in phonology and lexicon).

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

Linguistics has a difficult niche, in both academia and in wider public discourse. Because everyone speaks a language, many non-linguists think they know what linguistics is, and it's often far off the mark. This makes linguistics precarious, especially in situations where we aren't the ones making decisions about our field (for example, in grant funding allocations across disciplines). One way to improve that situation is to have more linguistics work publicized in the general media (and the LSA has been increasingly drawing attention to work that's of general interest, such as Carmel O'Shannessy's work on Light Warlpiri). Another is to increase the presence of linguistics in schools, and the Linguistics Olympiad initiatives seem to be having some effect there. At my university, for example, we are seeing increasing numbers of freshmen who've taken part in Olympiad activities, or who have sought out our department because they've heard about it from friends.

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

That's hard! The LSA does lots of things for its members. Language has to be up there - providing a top tier publication forum is very important for the field. I've also been pleased to see the way in which the LSA has become more involved in linguistics issues in the public media recently.