Cameron Wilson Portrait

ELTABBer of the Month: Cameron Wilson

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Cameron’s biography:

I began my teaching career as a ‘day job’ when I was working as puppeteer and theater designer in NYC, and ended up finding my true calling in the classroom. After teaching English for adult immigrants in Brooklyn not-for-profits for several years, I became fascinated by theoretical linguistics and decided to go back to school myself.

As a graduate student I had the opportunity to teach a wide range of classes, from Phonetics to Acquisition to Sociolinguistics, to undergraduates in Linguistics and Speech Sciences departments in the City University of New York, before ending up in my favorite post teaching a course called ‘Language and Culture’ at the Borough of Manhattan Community College for several semesters. I completed my PhD at CUNY in 2018 and came to Berlin to work as a postdoctoral researcher in semantics and pragmatics at the Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ZAS).

While I continue to work in semantic research at the ZAS, I managed to returned to the classroom to teach English for Academic Purposes a year ago when I joined the faculty of the Open Learning Initiative at Bard College Berlin, a preparatory program for students from refugee backgrounds who want to pursue graduate study in the EU.

Now that our cohort of students have all submitted their applications for masters programs in Human Rights, Sociology, Public Policy and Business and are embarking with me on their final semester of EAP (along with tutorials in their chosen fields), I plan to stay in Berlin and continue teaching academic English at Bard and/or other institutions – hopefully face-to-face and not just in the socially distant online classroom!


What was the curriculum like in your Language and Culture’ course at the Borough of Manhattan Community College? 

This was an introduction to linguistics course with an emphasis on socio- and anthropological linguistics. Because the students came from such culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, they brought a huge amount of knowledge into the classroom. They learned how to apply methods and theories of various branches of linguistics to their own experiences. The final project was to record and transcribe some primary linguistic data (usually a conversation with consenting friends or family members) and write a short paper about it based on some particular area we had covered that piqued their interest. Many wrote about multilingualism and code-switching or gender and language among their peers, or they researched a particular creole language that their parents and grandparents spoke. 


Puppeteering and theatre designing sounds like a pretty creative enterprise – do you think English teaching attracts creative types?

In my experience, language teaching particularly attracts people who work in theater. I was drawn to puppetry because it is an art form that involves powerful direct collaboration with an audience. The puppeteer co-creates the illusion of life with the viewers and that ‘magic’ can build a sense of community and lead to engagement with important social issues. Language ‘teaching’ is similar, it involves co-creating a classroom community to support language acquisition. Both the experience of learning together and the concrete language skills attained can be transformative to people’s individual lives and society as a whole.  


I just finished watching Pretend It’s a City and am going through a period of missing New York (I moved to Berlin from there as well), so I really just want to ask questions like what neighborhood you lived in and what your favorite places there are?…

I lived in Brooklyn for 17 years, moving around different neighborhoods at first, but settling in Ditmas Park, Flatbush in the end. My English teaching was centered in Boerum Hill in downtown Brooklyn which has a thriving Yemeni community whose shops and restaurants and home-cooking I enjoyed. I love Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and I appreciate that Berlin is also such a green city. In Manhattan I used to spend a lot of time in the Lower East Side and Chinatown – and here I’ll put in a plug for my brother’s art gallery, ‘Klaus von Nichtssagend’ on Ludlow Street—you should visit if you’re in the neighborhood!


…but here are some actual ELT-based questions: What is the focus of your research in semantics at ZAS [Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft]? Is it desk-research or are you also collecting data? And if it’s the latter, has Covid affected your research?

Actually, my linguistics research also has very little to do with ELT. I work in semantic theory, specifically around the semantics of adjectives and other gradable expressions, drawing on English and crosslinguistic data. Before the pandemic hit, I had begun using corpus data extensively, and fortunately that’s something that lends itself to “home office.” My colleague Stephanie Solt and I recently presented joint work on degree modifiers (words like pretty, rather, somewhat and kind of) which all have similar meanings but very different syntactic distribution. For example, you can say ‘rather/somewhat taller’ but not ‘pretty taller’, and you can say, ‘It kind of slithered up the tree’ but not ‘It somewhat slithered up the tree.’ We’ve developed individual semantic analyses that account for these differences, and also a model for the polarity sensitivity that they all share (the fact that, e.g., ‘the house is not rather large’ sounds quite bad). The conferences we presented at were supposed to be in London and Tübingen, but of course they were online instead. Much less fun!


Regarding your EAP [English for Academic Purposes] work for Bard, what disciplines are you preparing the students to study in the EU? 

Several of the students have applied to Public Policy master’s programs in Germany and Austria, and some are interviewing for the Human Rights program at Central European University this week. We also have individual students applying for MBA programs, Environmental Studies, Anthropology and Sociology. 


Should ‘culture’ be integrated into language learning, or are they best treated as separate disciplines?

I think language and culture are very intertwined—assuming you’re talking about ordinary human culture and not “high culture”. Cultural differences and intercultural experiences also make great subject matter to get students talking and/or writing—and while they’re focused on communicating, the opportunities for developing specific grammar and vocabulary emerge naturally. For example, last semester a writing assignment about the students’ experiences of German culture led to revelations about discrimination that some students had been victims of here. We were working on the present perfect and I had been worrying about how to introduce the passive, which seemed like a very dry but necessary grammar lesson to plan. I realized that “having been discriminated against” was a very salient passive form. So I gave them some models of passive constructions and split them into groups to discuss and make lists of things that had happened to them since they arrived in Germany. They came back with lots of excellent sentences and urgent questions about vocabulary that they needed to express themselves. The grammar learned this way allowed us to tackle some less exciting academic formulations such as: “The data have been collected and statistical analysis has begun.”  


Can you give us an interesting linguistics fact? Linguistics is fascinating!

This doesn’t relate to my own research, but I think it’s important for English teachers to know: One way to understand functional elements like pronouns is in terms of feature specification and under-specification. We are taught in school that ‘he/she’ and ‘they’ are singular and plural respectively. In fact, their distribution can better be explained if we consider them as masculine singular, feminine singular and underspecified or ‘default’. If a referent is plural, a pronoun specified as singular can’t be used, so the default ‘they’ is inserted. Similarly, if the gender of a singular referent is unknown, ‘they/them/their’ works best: ‘Someone left their bag here.’ The fact that it already has this use explains why ‘they’ has taken hold as a pronoun for non-binary people. In the past, feminist and queer activists introduced new gender-neutral pronouns into the lexicon, but even people with good intentions struggle to integrate these into their speech. By contrast, using ‘they’ doesn’t require revising one’s functional inventory—a part of language that is highly resistant to change. It only requires the speaker to internalize the fact that both ‘he’ and ‘she’ are inapplicable (and perhaps shed some of the prescriptivism instilled by their third-grade English teacher). 


I have taught functional English to refugees – how to go to the shops, how to ask for directions, etc. – but at the more advanced level of English for Academic Purposes, is there much difference between teaching refugees and teaching other learners from other backgrounds?

I don’t think there’s any difference in terms of content between teaching students from refugee backgrounds and teaching other populations at any level: in Brooklyn I taught that kind of ‘functional’ English to immigrants, most of whom were not refugees. What’s important is being aware of and respectful of people’s backgrounds and current circumstances and how these may impact their performance as well as the group dynamics. Students from refugee backgrounds are more likely to have experienced trauma in the recent past and to face discrimination and insecurity in the present. One student last semester faced threats from compatriots due to his human rights advocacy and had to move for his own safety, which was obviously disruptive to his studies. Mental health issues have been complicating factors for other students. You have to be creative and adaptable to keep everyone on track to succeed. But I can also attest that I had students at NYU who struggled with depression or missed class due to housing or visa issues. So there really is no categorical difference. Every student and every class has unique challenges, and teaching is about facilitating learning whatever the circumstances.