By Sydney Wang
Dr. Brook Bolander joined the School of English in August 2015. In the following interview, I talk to Dr. Bolander about her research interests in computer-mediated communication (CMC), language-related inequality in education, global English and sociolinguistic theories.
SW: From my personal experience, communication via the Internet is just an extension of my offline conversations. I only talk to my friends online and they already know who I am, so I would not necessarily perform my identities online. In this case, I am curious to know, what are the differences between computer-mediated communication and real life communication?
BB: This is an interesting question. The relationship between the online and offline is becoming far more fluid, which means the line between them is increasingly blurry. Maybe it is good to move away from the idea that offline communication is somehow more “real” than online communication, and to take into account the fact that online communication and practices are embedded in offline contexts.
In terms of methodology, what is important is to address what we compare. Are we interested in social practices that may be changing in new spaces, or are we interested in how different technologies are shaping these practices? And if we are interested in technologies, how can we explore these without overemphasizing the role of technology? This is quite challenging.
SW: I can already envision many difficulties in studying online data. For example, it would be hard to track the real identities of bloggers or to pick out useful data from the mass of information available. How do you collect data online?
BB: This is the question we have to continuously ask ourselves, both if we are studying social media and also if we are doing other types of linguistic research.
I favor a “research question approach”, which I also talk a lot about in class with my students. I observe online activities first without immediately deciding what I have to do and what I am trying to find out. I like to have a look at what’s going on, have a look at what stands out and what I find interesting. It’s often the little things that you find striking, which can potentially lead to interesting research questions. Then you can go and look at the literature to see how these issues have been dealt with, what people have said about them. On this basis you can begin to develop research questions that steer your specific choice of data and methodology. If you only have a rough idea, the data will seem endless. The digital medium creates the illusion that it is a haven of pre-prepared data, but I don’t think the web is data. I think the web is communication and we linguists have to decide what our data is on the basis of the research questions that we ask.
SW: In your opinion, what are the latest trends in research about CMC?
BB: The answer to this question mainly depends on who you ask and what their interests are. For what I have done on CMC, the key trend is towards the mixing of methods to try to take into account the fluidity and movement between online and offline. This mixing of methods is something that is continuously being emphasized in publications. If we take a look at the titles of books that have come out recently, for the first time we find handbooks of methods coming out, which shows there is a stronger preoccupation with questions of methodology.
The trends are also towards more work on community and identity, which are topics that are relatively underexplored from linguistic perspectives – for example, questions about how they are performed and co-constructed online. There is also more being done on different languages online. Finally, another theme is big data – the use of web as corpus or web for corpus.
SW: How do you feel about different varieties of English? Do you think these varieties of English have any chance of being treated as equally as “authentic English”?
BB: My own research on global English explores questions of ideology, ideas about languages and identity, which are more broadly connected to questions of differences, power and equalities. This is where the label of different varieties becomes important.
It is less to do with authenticity per se in the sense that we can say that one variety is more authentic than the other and more to do with the belief that languages are not neutral. The ideas we have about language, as we have been told by linguistic anthropologists, are never just about language, but always also about the people who use language.
The process of standardization itself is also a social process. It is important for us to remember this when we talk about different varieties of English. We not only talk about the varieties but also about the people who use these varieties, and that should force us to be aware of the fact that we are raising broader questions about social differences and social inequalities, about who has the power to label and judge varieties. This is always a theme within sociolinguistics, and it continues to be an important theme as English and Englishes continue to spread around the world. As sociolinguists, many would argue that we have a duty to recognize that these differences are strongly linked to social differences and questions about power and that part of our job is to draw attention to this.
SW: Finally, I am curious to know what brought you to Hong Kong?
BB: I grew up in Western Australia and my family moved to Switzerland when I was a teenager. My personal history of passing through Hong Kong when traveling between Australia and Switzerland made me feel closer to the city. The quality of output in the School of English also attracted me here. I find a lot of research that is being conducted here inspiring. It is compatible with my own work but also different, and so I thought I could learn a lot from what people are doing here and that and I could contribute something as well.