About the LSA Member Spotlight

Originally created in 2011 and now making its debut on the new LSA website, the LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month.  If you would like to be featured in a Member Spotlight, or would like to recommend someone else to be featured, please contact David Robinson, the LSA's Director of Membership and Meetings.

Click here to see previous Member Spotlights.

Virginia Valian, City University of New York

Virginia Valian is a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York.  She is a member of the Psychology Department at Hunter College and a member of the PhD Programs in Psychology, Linguistics, and Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at the Graduate Center.  Valian conducts research on young children's acquisition of syntax with the aim of developing a model of acquisition that specifies what is innate, how input is used by the child, and how the child's syntactic knowledge interacts with knowledge in other linguistic and extra-linguistic domains.  A second area in language is the relation between bilingualism and executive function in adults.  Valian also works on gender to understand why so few women are in positions of power and prestige.  The interested reader can learn more about the Language Acquisition Research Center here, the Gender Equity Project here, and Valian here.

Q:  When did you first join the LSA?

I've been a member for years but I don't remember when I first joined.  I recently deaccessioned my old issues of Language and there were a lot of them.

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

I'd say that the LSA has done more for me than I've done for it!  

I've talked twice about gender at LSA meetings.  I'd be happy to do so again.  I'd like to see linguists more informed about experimental and observational data showing the extent to which men and women both slightly overvalue men's and undervalue women's, with the long-term result of slower advancement of women compared to men.  (See my book Why So Slow?  The Advancement of Women, 1998, MIT Press.)  I think that linguistics has made substantial progress in recognizing the achievements of non-white non-men, but at meetings one still hears proportionately less from women and people of color, especially in question periods.

I've urged the LSA take on the responsibility of developing and consistently updating an accurate database on the representation of women and underrepresented minorities in linguistics.  Without data it is impossible to track how equitable the field is.  I know that plans are underway to do more systematic tracking.

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

For me, certain questions are eternal.  What is natural language?  What does it mean to know a language?  My (minority) view is that the field has not answered either question.  I'd like to see a paragraph in every paper that says, "The implication of this work for the nature of language is ….", or, "The implication of this work for the mental representation of language is …."

Beyond the challenge of the eternal questions is the challenge of using linguistic research for human betterment.  I think the field could do much more in that direction.

Q:  What is your current research and how did you become interested in it?

Right now I am excited about several projects.  We are starting large-scale computer-assisted analyses of children's early productions in order to answer questions like:  is children's early speech formulaic or abstract?, how similar are children's productions to their parents'?, how can we improve part-of-speech tagging of children's corpora?  We are also conducting priming experiments with two-year-olds, with adult bilinguals, and with second language learners.  Finally, we are trying to understand the inconsistencies in young adult bilinguals' performance on executive function tasks.

As an undergraduate, my first interest was clinical psychology, followed by physiological psychology.  My MA thesis at Northeastern was on the effect of hippocampal lesions on visual and spatial reversals in the rat.  I might still be a physiological psychologist today (although I'd call myself a neuroscientist) if I hadn't worked in what was then the Psychology Department at MIT.  I was fascinated by the questions that people were asking.  Thomas Bever hired me to type his thesis; I had the rare ability to sorta kinda read his hand-writing.  Bever was enormously generous to me and convinced me that I wasn't too old – at age 24 – to shift from physiological to cognitive psychology.  I worked on my thesis out of residence with Bever at Rockefeller and after getting my PhD at Northeastern was a post-doc at MIT where Merrill Garrett gave me a great deal of autonomy.  Moving from adult psycholinguistics to developmental psycholinguistics was a natural step.

I find two-year-olds' linguistic behavior mesmerizing and beautiful.  That studying language acquisition also allows me to work on topics that span linguistics, psychology, and philosophy seems almost miraculous.

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

The LSA provides many intellectual benefits (Language, the Summer Institute, the annual meetings) that I value.  It can be a strong voice for progressive policies on language – and languages.  I'd like to see state-of-the-field reports at the Annual Meetings.