(A brief intro to) my Master’s Research

Two very important things I learned quite early during my postgraduate studies are:

  1. You’re a grain of sand in a very long beach called “science”;
  2. You’ll most certainly not be able to change/save the world.

As for the first bitter truth above, it’s worth mentioning that the beach has its sand castles constantly washed away or reshaped by the ocean of new evidence, so whatever brilliant research idea you’ve got, there’ll be either someone who’s already done something of the like or someone who will do it after you and challenge your claims. There’s no harm in this, though. This is precisely what science is about: learning and relearning.

Regarding the second point, I must say it’s not intended to drag you down. Some researchers (either for being exceptionally brilliant or for being in the right place at the right time) manage to come up with something new that may actually change and improve our understanding of a certain ‘problem’ in a revolutionary way, but the fact is that they’re rare, quite rare.

As a standard, a Master’s programme is a two-year-long (or should I say two-year-short) adventure. This very tight time constraint is probably your worst enemy, and the only way to face it is by making sure your topic is as narrow as you can make it, or you may end up getting caught in the trap of vagueness or incompletion. Academia expects you to be able to account for all things theoretical related to your research, and this means you need to learn everything about whatever has already been investigated about your cherished idea and the topics related to it. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that you need a very well-defined, incisive research question that makes the study feasible in 24 months while being strong enough to allow a complex postgraduate study.

As this post’s title suggests, I’m not going to explain all the whats, whys and hows of my Master’s Research. That is what dissertations are for, and mine has 132 pages. Instead, I’m just going to try to pinpoint some of the key things about it (and this may well take a few more posts). Today, though, I’m showing you what I’ve done and where my ‘sand castle’ stands on the abovementioned beach.

My research in 21 words

Whenever I’m asked about what my research was about, I have a hard time mentally building an answer that is short enough to be understood and detailed enough to be satisfactory. In most cases, my quick answer goes somewhat like this:

“I investigated English language learners’ perceptions of the similarities between English phrasal verbs and the equivalent constructions in their mother tongue.”

As informative as it may sound, the statement above is actually almost an insult to my dissertation, as the investigation of learners’ perceptions was but a small, although central, part of the whole study. But how did I choose this topic? Did it pop up in my mind after a crazy dream? Was it connected to my own challenges and frustrations as an English language learner? Did I get the idea from someone else’s work? Did anyone tell me to study this specific topic? Well, none of the above and all of the above combined.

A garden somewhere in the universe

In order to better show you in which context my research is located, let’s use another analogy. Imagine human knowledge as a galaxy cluster in the universe, and you and I are flying around it. Each of the galaxies in that cluster corresponds to one of the big areas of science, and we’re targeting one of them, known as Human Sciences. Like many other galaxies, this one is formed by a hot, undefined bulge in its centre and bright spiral arms around it. Each one of those arms is an area in human sciences. Now we’re flying towards a spiral arm called Linguistics, which is located between two other arms labelled as Anthropology and Psychology. There is a lot of star dust and dark matter flowing between the spiral arms, which means everything is somehow interconnected in quite a complex way.


As we fly into our target spiral arm, we notice that the loads of stars inside it are organised in several constellations, some located very deep into the arm of the galaxy, others floating near its boundary. We’re now headed to two neighbouring constellations called Applied Linguistics and Psycholinguistics. In that corner of the galaxy, there is a small, dim star that belongs to both constellations. It’s called Second Language Acquisition. This star is surrounded by several celestial bodies, such as comets, asteroids and planets. One of those bodies is a tiny planet called Languages. This planet holds thousands of ecosystems, but we’re interested in two of them: Portuguese as a First Language and English as a Foreign Language. The ecosystems on this planet are constantly affected by the orbits of several moons. We call this dynamic system of influence ‘Interlanguage‘. In the real world, Interlanguage is one of the theories trying to explain how people acquire second languages, that is, languages learnt after the mother tongues. Among the moons orbiting our imagined planet, two of them are especially important for us now: Language Transfer and Crosslinguistic Similarities.

Back to our ecosystems, there is a species of plant in the ecosystem English that is particularly hard to come to grips with for inhabitants of the ecosystem Portuguese. These plants are called Phrasal Verbs. But, what if Portuguese also had an undiscovered species of plant from the same family as the English phrasal verbs?

Back to the real world

My research was a lot like the make-believe space travel we’ve just had. I started in a lost spaceship flying among galaxy clusters and zoomed all the way down to a tiny garden of phrasal verbs. As a linguist and native speaker of Portuguese who’s learnt English as a foreign language, I had a feeling that my mother tongue had structures with the same formal and semantic properties as those that we know as phrasal verbs in English. So I decided to verify this hypothesis and explore how other learners deal with such a crosslinguistic similarity.

I’ve come to some interesting conclusions, the most important one being that Portuguese does have phrasal verbs, although grammarians haven’t given them a label yet. In a future post, I’ll tell you a bit more about how my study was done and what I found.

See you next time.


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