“I find this a fascinating area” – interview with Kees de Bot

November was a lucky month for students wanting to know more about applied linguistic: for a week, two foreign, internationally known professors taught classes. Kees de Bot came from the Netherlands, University of Groningen. He likes the Hungarian people, food and wine, has already been here twice, and is likely to revisit again next year.

What is your class about?

The class is about second language development in general. There we look at acquisition, what grows over language, but we also look at the attrition of the language: the language that you once knew, and through non-use, declined. And we try to look at it from the Dynamic System’s perspective. The language is seen as a dynamic system that changes over time due to the interactions with the environment and internal reorganization. And while Dynamic System Theory has been applied to the sciences and earthquakes and bushfires, we think it also applies to language and language development.

What are you working on now? Is there any new research you’re doing?

Yes. I’m now interested in to what extent people are better AT learning and processing at different times of the day. Some people are what we call a lark that like to get up and go to bed early, and some people are owls, who like to get up late and stay up late. They have their best performance at different times of the day, because the larks are much better in the morning, and the owls in the afternoon. We did an experiment in which we looked at different types (whether you’re an early or a late type) and we made them do word learning and recognition tasks. We looked at to what extent they were better at their optimal time of the day or and their worst time. There was a very clear effect, which tells us that language learners should not be taken as an average, it should be taken to account that some people are just better at certain times of the day. We know in general that at lessons there are always late types, so starting school at nine or eight is a very bad idea, because they’re still asleep than. Like most of the students.

Why did you choose linguistics as your field of research?

I started out doing Dutch language and literature. At that time, I thought I would be working on 19th century literature. But then in my third year, there were two courses, sociolinguistics and psycholinguistic. I was just completely taken away by that, because all of a sudden language was not something that was grammar only, it was something that people do. Social groups, with also how our brain actually composes language. I found that so fascinating, I decided that is what I want to do. I’ve done that ever since. My focus has always been on multilingualism, second language learning, particularly the psychological aspect of that.

Is there any advice you can give to students who are interested in the field of applied linguistics?

I find this a fascinating area and I’ve been working on this over 35 years now. There are so many things that we still don’t know. If you take medicine: there are many people studying different aspects of it, it is difficult to find something that no one has done so far. In applied linguistics, we’ve got millions of questions that we haven’t answered. It both contributes to our general knowledge of how our cognition system works, but also has an applied side, where you can contribute to how a language can be learned, and how teachers should improve their performance. So there’s a scientific and an applied side, and I like that combination.

What are your plans for the future?

I want to try to develop Dynamic System approach to language development and link up more people with the hard sciences, because there’s a whole lot of advanced statistics and mathematics that I don’t master. Maybe I’m just not clever enough to do that, we will have to see. I am quite sure, that we can learn a lot from people in other fields about language and dynamic systems, because I’ve always thought that the great thing about applied linguistics is that it’s the edge of different fields: psychology, sociology, education, language disorders, pedagogy. I like the interaction between all these fields. Interesting things happen at the border of two disciplines, because you get new ideas and new insights, and that’s what I’m looking for.

Thank you for your time.