Sarah Kristian is a Newfoundland native, originally from Wesleyville. She received her MA/MSci in psycho/neuro-linguistics from Potsdam University, Germany after completing an Erasmus Socrates program. Her primary research interests include how we store and organize the sound systems of the languages we speak. Involved in this is how we learn new categories, especially during first language acquisition, and how existing mental categories change during one's lifespan. During her graduate career, Sarah has published work in sociolinguistics, phonology, and psycholinguistics and she has presented at several conferences. She also teaches at Memorial and works as lab manager at the linguistics department’s Aboriginal Languages and Research Laboratory. Outside of academia most of her time is devoted to her family and church community.
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your graduate degree?
Part of my decision to attend Memorial was pragmatic—I was already living in St. John’s, my family is nearby, and I had the promise of employment opportunities if I stayed—but one of the biggest selling points for me was the department. The faculty and staff have provided a supportive environment, both academically and personally.
What drew you to explore linguistics originally?
When I first took linguistics, my original aim was to teach English as a Second Language. It didn’t take long (about a week’s worth of class) to get hooked on linguistics itself. I enjoyed exploring the ideas of what language was; learning how different languages that seemed, on the surface, to be so different could actually share regular patterns; and learning what language might tell us about human cognition. I found studying linguistics to be challenging and exciting, and found that I could daydream linguistics in a way not so unlike daydreaming about some of my fiction novels. I was hooked.
Can you tell us a bit about your current projects?
This is always the fun question, not just because I enjoy my work but also because it’s increasingly challenging to talk about it with people outside of the field… But I’ll give it a go.
I recently submitted a book chapter on the relationship between how we speak and speaker identity. One of the results from my research suggests that rural Newfoundland youths speak like who they aspire to be, or, more specifically, where they aspire to live. Those aiming to move away from rural Newfoundland were already moving away from certain rural speech features.
What I’m working on now is in a different field; I turned from the relationship between language and society to phonology, or the study of speech patterns. I’m investigating how we develop the speech patterns of our first language, and what units of representation are relevant to describe those speech patterns.
A supervisor can be key to the success of any grad student. What does your supervisor bring to their role as your advisor and mentor?
For a variety of reasons, my graduate program has been a protracted one, and the roles my supervisor has played has varied over the course of my PhD. Several of the roles are perhaps the basic expected roles of any Memorial supervisor – feedback on research, advice for conferences, a guide through the complexities of research. But I’ve also had the fortune of having a supervisor that goes beyond these sorts of roles.
Dr. Yvan Rose has been a steady source of empathy and encouragement, talking me down from the metaphorical ledge on more than one occasion after my research ballooned to something unmanageable or life happened to get in the way of my academic pursuits. He’s given me space and grace to focus on non-academic challenges as they’ve arisen (most recently this has included learning how to be a student and a mom at the same time). Dr. Rose has also given me the space to ask big research questions and has allowed me to reach as far as I’ve wanted. This has been a tricky as he’s also played the role of reigning me back in when research questions become too big or unmanageable for a dissertation.
On the other side of things, I’ve also had the fortune of having a supervisor willing and able to allow me to play several roles: Sarah-the-student, Sarah-the-sort-of-junior-colleague, Sarah-the-unsure-mom, Sarah-the-devil’s advocate. Dr. Rose has fostered an environment where I am free to challenge long-standing literature, challenge methods, and challenge his perspective on theoretical issues. He’s met all of my challenges (and not all of these have been reasonable or easy) with patience (or, perhaps more aptly, long-suffering). I’m not sure what my academic experience would have been like without this opportunity. Perhaps with added constraints I might have moved along more quickly—who knows? — but I would not have grown nearly as much in depth or knowledge or confidence in my capabilities. In short, he’s brought a lot.
Are you involved in any organizations on-campus or off?
Outside of my own research, I work with Marguerite Mackenzie (Professor Emerita) as part of the Innu Language Project at Memorial. One of the major functions of the Innu Language Project has been to create Innu resources in collaboration with Innu communities. I have had the privilege of assisting with several of our productions, including various sets of Innu children’s books, Innu medical and legal glossaries, and our pan-Innu dictionaries.
What do you like most about being a graduate student at Memorial?
Flexibility. I’ve been able to pursue my studies while having room and time to grow in many areas—academic and otherwise. And right now, as a mother of a young child, this flexibility has become even more important to me.
What do you hope to do after completing your graduate degree?
This is a challenging question for me. There have been a few twists and turns along my academic journey, so what I saw myself doing at the beginning of my program is different from what I see now. I have started a new (for me) practice of focusing on the present—what that offers and how I can best engage with my current opportunities—rather than focusing on the next stage of my life. Whatever it brings, my current experiences will help equip me to face it. What I’m trying to say here is that, for me, the exciting thing is not being able to see what future my graduate program offers, but rather seeing how it might be used to meet whatever my future offers.