(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.


Discovering the linguist in myself

…So I tried to establish the reasons why writing about languages and linguistics could be relevant to me.

The other day, while sitting around with a couple of books on my lap, I had an idea. ‘What if I create a blog to write about languages, linguistics and the like?’, I pondered. My next thought was that it would be a stupid idea. Too many more experienced, important people had already dedicated their time to something like that. Who would read me? Who would even find me in this endless sea called the Internet?

Another big drawback with my idea was my previous tries, all of which deemed fruitless. I had already had other blogs (about my side job as a musician, aresearchbout my travel experiences, about English language learning), but I could not find the will to commit to them for too long. Most of them did not reach their second year. I realised that, if I was to commit to a blog, it had to matter to me more than somewhat. It had to be closely connected to my current work and research. So I tried to establish the reasons why writing about languages and linguistics could be relevant to me.

That exercise rekindled fond memories of my childhood years, when I first came across linguistics. It was about 16 years ago, when I was 13. At that time I was obsessed with the Ancient Egypt and I was sure I was going to do History in university and eventually become an egyptologist (I was not aware of how hard it is to get into the mainstream of Egyptology). I had a magazine about Egypt and one of its articles was about hieroglyphs. I learnt that scholars only managed to “break the code” of that mysterious language after finding the Rosetta Stone. I really wanted to learn how to read the Egyptian script, but I simply had no access to coursebooks so specific, and the Internet was still precarious where I lived.

My interest in the Egyptian language eventually waned, but another language piqued my curiosity. In my teenage years, I was lucky to be in a close-knit group of friends, and one of those friends belonged to a family that had immigrated from Lebanon in the beginning of the 20th century. He would tell me how his grandparents spoke Arabic at home, and how he and his parents could understand most of the language but were unable to speak it (a phenomenon I later learnt to be called “passive bilingualism“). This friend of mine had tried to study the language on his own, and I made him teach me what he knew. Still, to this day, I can understand and use the Arabic alphabet and have a short basic conversation in Levantine Arabic.

Meanwhile, other less committed attempts to pick up foreign languages included some contact with Latin, through old missals found on a dusty bookshelf in the church I used to go to; Spanish, with some coursebooks I had been given and in a year of short weekly lessons during my second year in secondary school; and English, as it was the main foreign language taught at school.

My last year in secondary school played a determinant role in my choosing of career. It was 2005, I studied in a state school in the town of Pedro Osório, and we had one 60-minute lesson of English language a week. Obviously, I could hardly yield any learning results from those lessons, as most of the students were not really interested in the language. But I was! So I found out that my teacher also owned a small English language school. He eventually saw how interested and motivated I was about learning English and invited me to work as a language assistant at his school. I would be able to attend lessons there if I helped with the school’s organisation during the week. That was my first work experience and I had the chance to see how a language school worked. At the end of that year I passed the university entrance examinations and moved to the city of Pelotas to study TEFL (Teaching of English as Foreign Language) at the Federal University of Pelotas.

My four and half years as an undergraduate student had a major role in shaping my professional profile. I understand many people end up dropping out and trying other programmes before they can finally find their vocation, but for me it was love at first sight. When I entered university, there were about 25 people in my class, most of whom had already studied English for many years. I was one of the few odd men out. Apart from the not very effective secondary school lessons, I had had just about 20 hours of formal English language instruction at my former teacher’s school. And now I was in a programme that would teach me how to teach a language I barely knew myself. Quite a challenge! I took it on and got round it! During my undergraduate years I managed to work for four consecutive terms as an English language teacher at the university’s extension courses. I also taught myself some Spanish, had a one-year course of Latin and did a six-month course of German.

From 2009 to 2010 I worked in a small language school in one of the suburbs of Pelotas. Then I graduated and got a new job in Yázigi, a high-profile language school chain, the oldest in Brazil. Still in 2010 I met (on a penfriend website for language learners) the person who would become my wife a couple of years later, a Russian girl called Ekaterina. When we first met in person, in 2012, she gave me a Russian coursebook, and that is how I started learning one more language.

Two years ago, when I was trying to make up my mind about what to investigate in my Master’s degree research, I remembered all those foreign languages I had had any sort of closer contact with – namely, Ancient Egyptian, Arabic, English, Spanish, Latin, German, and Russian. On several occasions while studying one of those languages, I felt that what I knew about another language could help me. I used my previous linguistic knowledge countless times, both consciously and unconsciously, to get hold of new vocabulary or structures in the language I was learning. That was it! My research was going to be about cross-linguistic influence in foreign language learning.

Today, somewhere halfway through my dissertation research, I am sure that was the right choice. I am more and more convinced that second/foreign language learning and teaching depends a lot on the knowledge teachers and learners have about language contact and crosslinguistic similarities, so I am going to use this blog to share with you my research and talk about other interesting topics related to multilingualism, language contact and foreign language teaching.

See you next time!