Breaking the language barrier – cognitive linguistics in China

Dr Dagmar Divjak, an academic from the University of Sheffield and one of the new generation of cognitive linguists, visits China to share knowledge and expertise with Chinese colleagues.

Dr Dagmar DivjakDr Dagmar Divjak from the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sheffield recently visited China to give a series of lectures in Jinan, Shandong Province, on the subject of cognitive linguistics. She was invited as one of ten prominent scholars who specialise in the subject to report on cutting-edge research in their respective fields at Chinese universities, with the lectures being attended by 70 academic colleagues from across China.

The lecture series focused on the issue of the cognitive commitment within cognitive linguistics, and approached it from both a theoretical and a methodological perspective: what does it mean for a linguist to work in a cognitively realistic fashion, and how can we achieve it methodologically?

Dr Divjak’s experience was that her Chinese colleagues have a real thirst for knowledge in this area and was pleasantly surprised that Chinese academics were so knowledgeable about her work, especially considering it uses data from Slavic languages. Dr Divjak explained that working with colleagues in China was beneficial for both parties, as Chinese scholars are looking to us for new methods for studying languages and we can learn a lot from studying the Chinese language as it is distinctive in many ways from western languages.

“I was really impressed with my Chinese colleagues,” she explained. “They are very open to new ideas and keen to try new methods. They were very diligent, thorough and eager to learn more. Hard work is good work in their eyes.”

Working with Chinese colleagues also gave Dr Divjak a real insight into the cultural nuances in China and the way people live and work. The trip gave her the opportunity to be reunited with a former fellow group member, after the organisers had paired her with Dr Zhang Weiwei, who had worked in the same research team Dagmar was affiliated with in Belgium.

This partnership proved to be particularly useful, with Dr Zhang acting as an unofficial cultural advisor for Dr Divjak. For example, Dr Zhang sourced water for a cup of tea at breakfast as it was more usual to have soup.

It was cultural insights such as this that Dr Divjak particularly enjoyed about the trip, and the hospitality of her Chinese hosts.

“Lots of people made lots of effort to meet with me and discuss our work,” she explained, “Formal dinners were hosted every night (I know everything about the meaning of the seating arrangements now!) and colleagues were keen to help wherever possible.”

Wooden puzzlesThis led to a funny situation when three senior professors got involved in sourcing traditional Chinese wooden puzzles that Dr Divjak wanted to take home as gifts for her sons. These puzzles were amazingly difficult to find in a country famous for manufacturing plastic toys.

It is hoped that Chinese academics will be visiting Sheffield soon to continue their own development in cognitive linguistics by working with Dr Divjak and her colleagues and she hopes to return to China in 2017 to test predictions from cognitive linguistic theory against data her Chinese colleagues are gathering. Furthermore, the lectures she gave will be published as a book by Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press in 2018.