Language Rejoins the Conversation


by Michelle Ku
photo by Richie Wireman

In the Department of Hispanic Studies at UK, linguistics will no longer be playing second fiddle.

With a graduate program renowned for its literature studies, the linguistics side of Spanish is once again ready to rosin up its bow.

In the last three years, the number of linguists on the department’s faculty has tripled to three professors and the regularly offered graduate-level linguistics classes have grown from two to nine.

Most importantly, Hispanic Studies unveiled an Allied Field in Hispanic Linguistics, a concentration area intended to supplement the literature course work of a doctoral candidate.

“For students in all fields of Hispanic Studies, the study of linguistics, the scientific study of language, can inform their understanding of the literary and cultural phenomena with which they work, and can provide an enhanced analytical framework for their research, regardless of their specialization in the Department of Hispanic Studies,” said Mark Lauersdorf, associate professor of languages and linguistics who helped design and implement the structure of the Allied Field.

“To understand human interaction, it is necessary to understand one of the primary mechanisms through which humans interact - language. As we study human interaction in world cultures and societies it is necessary to do so not only through the investigation of their artistic and literary expression, but also through the investigation of their language,” added Lauersdorf.

Left to right - Mark Lauersdorf, Alan Brown, Haralambos Symeonidis, Yanira Paz

An Allied Field is a secondary area of study intended to complement a doctoral candidate’s field of research by giving the student a broader knowledge of the language, said Haralambos Symeonidis, professor for Spanish linguistics and Director of Graduate Studies for Hispanic Studies.

In commenting on how literature students would benefit from the Allied Field Symeonidis cites an example, “If you never heard about the language change that took place in the medieval times in Spain, you can only understand certain things in the text because the language changed a lot during that time period.”

Hispanic Studies used to have a linguistics track in the 1980s, but the professors who taught those classes retired, and when they weren’t replaced, the classes disappeared, said Aníbal Biglieri, acting chair of the Department of Hispanic Studies. The return of a linguistics track adds a new dimension to the department’s study of literature and cultures.

“We deal with languages primarily through literature, but some of us never saw the separation some people make between language and literature,” Biglieri said.

Hispanic Studies is offering three formal Allied Field concentration areas: applied linguistics/second language acquisition, sociolinguistics and comparative-historical linguistics. A fourth concentration, one that is specifically designed and tailored to the interests of individual students in consultation with the linguistics faculty, is also available.

Last year, Rachel Wilson, a second year master’s student in Hispanic Studies, took the applied linguistics/second language acquisition survey course. “The class is great for anyone who wants to teach in any level,” Wilson said.

“It taught us how to specifically teach Spanish and how we need to adapt ourselves for different environments of classrooms and the different backgrounds and environments of students.”

The class also helps with understanding literature as well. “It really gives you a different path, a different perspective to look at a piece of literature, a novel or a poem.”

The Allied Field and its linguistics offerings are a vital addition to the Hispanic Studies program, said Associate Professor Yanira Paz. “A program just focusing on literature, per se, is lacking a very important component in the study of the language itself. We bring an important component that’s missing in the department.”

With literature and linguistics each playing their own part, the department’s symphony will only sound that much sweeter.

Below is a look at the three concentration areas:

Applied linguistics/Second language acquisition

Applied linguistics is an interdisciplinary field of study that analyzes and resolves language-based problems in the real world.

Alan Brown, assistant professor of Spanish Applied Linguistics, teaches the applied linguistics/second language acquisition Allied Field track, which will be of particular interest to students researching Spanish heritage language contexts, language program coordination with a teaching emphasis and primary through secondary education teaching.

The majority of the department’s doctorate and master’s graduates will not go on to research intensive institutions, meaning they will perhaps teach one class in their field of research, but the majority of their time will be spent teaching lower division Spanish classes.

“You need to be up on teaching and learning because you’re not going into your interview talking about your dissertation and nothing else,” Brown said. “They want to see you as a professional of teaching and learning. If you limit yourself to your specific area of literature, you may actually be doing yourself a disservice when it comes to getting a job.”

The central course in the applied linguistics/second language acquisition track is Spanish Applied Linguistics. The class covers applied linguistics, interpretation, translation, psycholinguistics, Spanish heritage language pedagogy and second language teaching methods specifically for teaching Spanish.

The two advanced classes that Brown is offering are Studies in Spanish Pedagogy and a Seminar in Second Language Theory in Spanish L2 Learning.

Comparative-historical linguistics

Comparative-historical linguistics is the study of how language changes primarily by describing and accounting for observed changes in a language, reconstructing the pre-history of languages to determine their relatedness and grouping them into language families, developing general theories about how and why language changes, describing the history of speech communities and studying the history of words.

The comparative-historical linguistics Allied Field track is taught by Symeonidis, who specializes in the history and development of the Romance languages.

This track will be of particular interest to students whose research areas are in medieval studies, renaissance and early modern studies or comparative Romance literatures. It will also help students understand certain medieval texts and the difference in the development of the Spanish language during the Renaissance and Early Modern Times, which marks the passage from medieval to modern Spanish.

The central course in the comparative-historical linguistics track is History of the Spanish Language, which will trace how Spanish developed from Latin through to present day, and it will also explore and discuss why language changes.

The two advanced classes that Symeonidis is offering are Introduction to Comparative Romance Linguistics and a Seminar in Historical Language Contact in the Spanish-Speaking World.


Sociolinguistics is the study of the how societal factors such as geography, age, education and gender affect the way language is used.

Paz, associate professor of Hispanic Studies, teaches the sociolinguistics Allied Field track, and she is also the department’s director of elementary language instruction.

The sociolinguistic track will be of particular interest to students whose research areas are transatlantic studies, colonial and post-colonial studies or Hispanic literature/culture in North America. This track will also help students become better speakers of Spanish by understanding with whom, where, when and how specific language forms should be used.

In addition, students will be able to use linguistic analysis as a tool for explaining literature, Paz said.

“Students working with issues of border and immigration will gain a lot by understanding how language works in these situations. Case in point: For students working with Latino/Latina writers, it would be of interest understanding the linguistic mechanism behind code-switching.”

The central course in the sociolinguistics Allied Field track is Sociolinguistics of the Spanish-Speaking World. The class will help students to look at a language as more than a set of rules and to become aware of the context in which specific words are used.

The two advanced classes that Paz is offering are Spanish Dialectology and a Seminar in Linguistic Analysis of Spanish Discourse.

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