Dr. Rebecca Ronquest, New FLL Tenure-Track Faculty.
Rebecca Ellen Ronquest joined the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures during the Fall 2013 semester as an Assistant Professor in Spanish Sociolinguistics and Acoustic Phonetics.
A native of the Midwest, Dr. Ronquest started working in the department last year as a Postdoctoral Teaching Scholar before making the transition to her new position as Assistant Professor. Her specialty is acoustic phonetics, particularly that of Hispanic bilingual speakers residing in the Carolinas.
The following is an email interview that FLL Webmaster Samuel Sotillo recently conducted with Dr. Ronquest.
Samuel Sotillo: First, could you tell us a little bit about your background? Where are you from? Where did you go to undergrad and graduate school?
Rebecca Ronquest: Although I was born in the Midwest and moved around a lot when I was very young, I spent most of my childhood and teenage years in Northern Virginia. After high school I attended the College of William & Mary, where I completed a B.A. in Spanish. I became really interested in linguistics during my last two years of college, so I decided to pursue that interest further in graduate school. I went on to earn my M.A. and Ph.D. in Hispanic Linguistics at Indiana University.
SS: Can you tell us a little bit about the intellectual trajectory that brought you to academia and to Spanish Sociolinguistics and Acoustic Phonetics?
RR: I’ve been interested in words and languages for about as long as I can remember (even though I was never really any good at spelling!). In middle school I took an “Overview of Foreign Language” class, and the following year starting taking Spanish, which I continued all the way through high school. In college I signed up for a class called “Spanish Phonetics and Phonology” (the equivalent of FLS 333) without really knowing what phonetics was at the time, and loved it. For me, learning the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) was like learning another language, and I really enjoyed transcription and studying the sounds of the world’s languages. I then took a course called “The Study of Language” which introduced me to the other areas in linguistics, including sociolinguistics. In graduate school I took a number of specialized classes and seminars, and even spent some time working in a psycholinguistics laboratory. The course assignments never seemed like work to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the creative process of conducting research.
As a graduate student, I was also given the chance to teach introductory and intermediate Spanish at the college level. Although I had no prior training and had never really considered teaching as a career until that point, I found that I felt very much at home in front of a classroom. I learned quickly that teaching is really hard work, but it is also one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had. After teaching Introduction to Hispanic Linguistics for the first time, I knew for certain that I wanted to be a professor, and to continue sharing my enthusiasm for Spanish and linguistics with the next crop of potential researchers and teachers.
SS: What does a Spanish Sociolinguist do? What is Acoustic Phonetics?
RR: Very generally speaking, Sociolinguists investigate the relationship between language use and social variables such as age, gender, and socioeconomic class (to name a few). A sociolinguistic study of Spanish, for example, might investigate if male and female speakers differ in terms of how frequently they pronounce or delete “s” in certain linguistic contexts. Sociolinguists also investigate topics such as bilingualism, language and society, new dialect formation, and the connection between language and identity. I’m particularly interested in bilingual pronunciation and how Spanish-English bilinguals might use language as a means to construct a dual or hybrid identity.
Acoustic phonetics is the study of the acoustic properties of speech. Acoustic phoneticians use a variety of tools to examine the fine-grained details of speech sounds that often can’t be perceived by listening alone. An acoustic investigation might allow us to see if second language learners of Spanish and native speakers pronounce the “p” in the word “pato” differently, or determine if the “d” in “hablado” is the same or weaker than the “d” in “lado.” Characterizing a sound or group of sounds in this way has a number of important implications, from accurately describing the sounds of a particular language or dialect, to understanding why a certain group of sounds might be difficult for some speakers to pronounce and/or perceive.
SS: What are you working on right now?
RR: Right now I am continuing to work with some of the data I collected for my dissertation, which deals with the pronunciation of the Spanish vowels by heritage speakers of Spanish. I have begun to extend this work to include vowel production by Spanish-English bilinguals in Raleigh and the surrounding areas, and am in the process of making comparisons between bilingual speakers from the Midwest and those here in the Southeast. Some of these projects are collaborations with Dr. Jim Michnowicz and one of our graduate students, Mary Raudez.
SS: In what ways do you think are your research and your teaching connected?
RR: Since I primarily teach courses in my specialty areas, there is a pretty strong connection between my research and my teaching. In FLS 333 (The Sounds of Spanish) and FLS 402/502 (Introduction to Hispanic Linguistics), I’m able to share my knowledge of phonetics and acoustics with the students, and make a point to discuss some of the findings of my vowel research with them as well. Last year I also taught a seminar on Spanish in the United States, which focused on analyzing the linguistic characteristics of bilingual and immigrant varieties of Spanish spoken in different communities across the US. We spent a good deal of time discussing heritage speakers of Spanish, who are my main population of interest.
Teaching has also allowed me to meet members of the local Spanish-speaking community. In fact, my interest in heritage speakers grew out of my experiences working with them in the classroom. Teaching and getting to know members of the Raleigh bilingual community has helped me identify some of the aspects of their speech that should be investigated further, and provided ideas for future research projects.
SS: What do you enjoy and find most challenging about teaching?
RR: I think what I enjoy most about teaching is witnessing someone’s “Aha! Moment” — when all of a sudden, all of the complex, abstract concepts suddenly make sense and a student notices something we’ve discussed in class in a real-world context. The challenge — but also something I truly enjoy — is coming up with creative and innovative ways to teach the information and present it to the students in a context that is relevant to their lives. This involves getting to know the students and learning about their interests, keeping up with what’s “trending,” and maybe even watching the MTV Video Music Awards.
SS: Anything you are reading right now?
RR: Although I’m always browsing the latest journals and keeping up with research in the field, I try to make time for some fun reading. I just finished Veronica Roth’s “Insurgent”, which is about a dystopian society in a future Chicago. It is somewhat similar to “The Hunger Games” series, so if you liked those books, I highly recommend it.
SS: Anything else we should know about you?
RR: Let’s see. I love to run, and try to make time for it every day. I enjoy competing in road races, and hope to complete my first marathon and triathlon this year. All that running makes my feet hurt, so I keep a pair of slippers in my office. You might catch me accidentally wearing them in the mail room. You might also hear me talking about my dog Max, an 11 year-old Pekingese. He is quite charming and adorable, so I hope you’ll all get a chance to meet him. And I can ride a unicycle and juggle, just not at the same time.
SS: What do you look forward to most about your new position?
RR: I’m really looking forward to becoming part of a team and contributing to the teaching and research communities here at State. Last spring I was given the chance to offer a new senior seminar, and I hope to create new courses in my specialty areas down the line that will strengthen our linguistics track. I’m also really looking forward to the opportunity to grow as a researcher, to learn from my colleagues in FLL and in the Linguistics program, and to collaborate with so many talented researchers — both faculty and graduate students alike. A lot of innovative and important research is underway, so I’m enthusiastic to be able to work on some of the existing projects as well as design new ones of my own.
SS: Do you have any advice for our students and alumni who are on the job market?
RR: My best advice? I think it goes without saying that it is very important to research each position carefully. Before even applying, investigate the school and the position; know who works there, what they do, and how you can contribute. The job market is also a waiting game, so you have to be patient. Sometimes you submit an application and don’t hear anything for months, if at all. Once an application is submitted, move on to other things and don’t dwell; trust that the right job will come along at the right time. Finally, probably the biggest lesson I learned over the past few years is that so much of the search process deals with finding the right “fit.” Even if a particular job sounds great on paper, you might go on an interview and realize that it just isn’t the right place for you. Pay attention to your interactions with the people you meet, think about what it would be like to be one of their colleagues, and try to get a sense of the departmental dynamics. Intuition usually tells you pretty quickly if it will be a good place to start or continue your career.
By Samuel Sotillo, Webmaster/Lecturer, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures.