• Cynthia White.

Love of languages a researcher’s global passport

Vinyl records in the sixties were not just for listening to the latest rock band. Linguistics and languages expert Professor Cynthia White learnt French via vinyl at Hutt Valley High school.

“They were trialing a new audiolingual method for French and we all went home with vinyl records – LPs – that came from the US,” says Pro Vice-Chancellor Professor White, head of Massey’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

The British-born Lower Hutt teen also studied Latin, discovering her love of learning languages therein. It’s been the basis of an enriching lifetime researching languages and how best to teach them. From vinyl to cassette tapes, telephones and now the internet, she’s witnessed massive transformations in methods and accessibility of language learning. Her fascination with the scientific and social study of language, or linguistics, followed at university. She also learned Korean and Thai during overseas stints as an English language teacher and she’s been an international consultant in the creation of Arabic and Flemish distance learning programmes in the US and Europe. In her later research on emotions and language learning, she explored the common struggles faced by those grappling with mysterious grammar and pronunciation of a new language they want to master.

As a champion of the contribution that humanities and social sciences makes to our collective wisdom and wellbeing, her research on the links between language and settlement among New Zealand’s migrant and refugee communities is particularly poignant and pertinent, a year after March 15th.

She recently published a preliminary report on the impact of the Welcoming Communities programme being piloted by Palmerston North City Council and in five regions around New Zealand. Professor White says settling in a new country is “an invisible process” that occurs beyond the awareness or understanding of many citizens. A sense of belonging was defined both by the ‘roots’ people put down here, and by the ‘routes’ they take to come here and their trajectory in finding their place in a new country, she says.

Access to English language learning and being able to maintain one’s own language was a key factor of successful settlement. Having family was crucial too. Those with children born here felt a special belonging, while those separated from extended family in their homeland often felt less connected. 

How to stay on track with learning a new language

In an era of fun, instant language-learning digital apps such as Duolingo, it may seem feasible to become fluent in another language without excessive effort or pain. Professor White says emotions play a huge part because people can feel frustrated, embarrassed and ashamed if they do not make progress to match their hopes and expectations. While it is tempting to ‘take a break’ if you do get stressed, this just creates further setbacks, she warns. Persistence pays off. There is, she says, “a lovely stage in language learning where it begins to kick in and you suddenly find yourself speaking it.”

While New Zealand’s education system has been derided for not prioritising second language learning, Professor White is “delighted and thrilled to see Te Reo Māori everywhere and people using it every day, whereas a few years ago they would not have done.”

Languages offer many opportunities, as she has witnessed. For example, interest in the relatively niche language of Flemish – spoken in Belgium’s Flanders region – has extended beyond Belgian borders thanks to Professor White. She has been a consultant on a project to offer Flemish (similar to Dutch) by distance to unemployed people in Spain, including refugees from Syria, because of the plentiful work opportunities in Flanders.

Languages and linguistics, however, are not the sole focus of her attention these days. As newly appointed head of Massey’s arts faculty, she is keen to see the banquet of subjects – from history and philosophy to sociology, psychology, politics, education, media studies, theatre, security and defence studies and creative writing to name a few – gaining traction.

Humanities and social sciences disciplines deal with the human condition, and the questions of our age – like co-existence, says Professor White, who was awarded her PhD in applied linguistics at Massey and has been working at the University since 1983.

Studying humanities, she says, is “central to questions of nation-building and to how New Zealanders navigate their way in a globalised world.”

As the world grapples with the horrors of the Covid19 pandemic, those human values have never been more vital.

For more information on studying arts at Massey: www.massey.ac.nz/ba