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Parts of LUCL have ground to a halt

The Leiden University Centre for Linguistics has been badly affected by the corona crisis: the research in the four labs and the fieldwork has come to a standstill. What are the implications?

For Niels Schiller, Academic Director of the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics (LUCL), much of his institute has ground to a halt. ‘One of my PhD candidates, Lisette Jager, is working on a longitudinal study into improving the pronunciation of English sounds. To put it bluntly, Dutch people are generally unable to distinguish between the vowels in bed and bat. Lisette is testing English students from different cohorts at the beginning, halfway through and at the end of their first year.’

LUCL working from home
Niels Schiller: ‘One advantage is that I’ve been able to finish two articles that I hadn’t managed to get around to doing before.’


‘Lisette is now facing problems because she can’t do the last test for the last cohort. We hope there will still be enough data, but this is disastrous for longitudinal research.’

Another problem that Jager is facing is that she also uses EEG, which measures brainwaves with surface electrodes that are attached to a kind of swim cap. The 1.5-metre rule is a problem here. The same is true for PhD candidate Sarah von Grebmer zu Wolfsthurn. She is researching people who speak multiple languages and how the grammatical systems of these languages influence one another. ‘Now hairdressers have been allowed to return to work, I hope researchers will be able to soon too,’ says Schiller.

Safe landing in Amsterdam
Niels Schiller: ‘When the crisis broke out, a number of our researchers were still doing fieldwork, including Sara Petrollino, who specialises in African languages. I was in intensive contact with her on WhatsApp around the time of the lockdown on 19 March. She was in Southwest Ethiopia at the time, a two-day journey from Addis Ababa – literally in the middle of nowhere. Because of corona, she as a Western woman was increasingly experiencing harassment there, which made it dangerous and imperative that she left quickly. Together with the University crisis team, we organised the return journey for Sara and, via Stockholm, she landed safely in Amsterdam on 22 March. I was so relieved to see her message saying she had landed because what she had told me about the situation in Ethiopia and her own safety was very worrying.’ 

Endangered languages

Another LUCL department is working on a big project to describe endangered languages from all around the world. Schiller: ‘There are around 7,000 languages. These are structurally very different: some have few sounds, whereas others have many; some place the verb at the beginning of the sentence whereas others place it at the end. And there are many more differences. But despite this, children, which is to say the human brain, can learn all these languages and people are able to communicate with one another.

‘If languages die out, the possibility to research the diversity and variability of the cognitive system and the brain will be lost forever. Some researchers have had to postpone their research trips. They are now doing literature research at home. But you get to the point when you’ve read all the relevant literature.’

LUCL working from home
The ‘expensive swim cap’ with electrodes that register brainwaves.

Three-month delay

Schiller expects the research to be delayed by at least three months. He hopes that PhD candidates will be able to make up the time. ‘That’s better than deciding to complete your PhD with one less article because that will put these PhD candidates at a disadvantage in the later competition for research funding and jobs.’ 

Schiller does see the advantage of working from home: ‘I have fewer distractions and have already been able to finish two articles that I hadn’t got round to doing in the past. But I do miss my colleagues and the students. I’ve had enough of video conferences. I sometimes have five or six per day, and it’s less efficient than talking to one another in person.’

LUCL working from home
Victoria Nyst: ‘My research into sign languages in different countries is now on hold.’

Sign language interpreters at long last

Victoria Nyst conducts research into sign languages. ‘For my research, we usually collect material in West Africa, but for my current project, one of the PhD candidates was supposed to collect data in the US. That’s all on hold for the shorter or longer term.’ 

One effect of the corona crisis is that, after years of campaigning, simultaneous sign language interpreters are finally being used at press conference in the Netherlands and a number of other countries, Nyst explains. ‘That’s had an enormous impact on the visibility of Deaf communities and their sign languages.’ Nyst thinks it is important to write Deaf with a capital ‘D’ because Deaf people form a linguistic community, just as people who speak German or Farsi do. She continues, ‘But interpreters during the corona crisis are not enough. Other information about corona has not been made accessible. That’s why in many countries Deaf people and their organisations have ended up making and sharing their own information films instead. The lack of access to health information, often through linguistic barriers, means that Deaf people are not as healthy as hearing people.’ 

LUCL working from home
Sign language in West Africa

Receiving and providing information

Nyst: ‘I have now started work on a project proposal to look, on the one hand, very specifically at medical language use in Ghanaian sign language and, on the other, much more broadly at how deaf communities in different African countries have had access to information about COVID-19. And I also want to find out how they themselves have provided information about their situation in these times of corona.

‘I assume that we are stuck with this situation for the time being. We have moved our sign language festival that was planned for September to next summer, and are expecting that part of this will be online. The summer school for deaf African students in 2021 will probably be entirely online too. Fortunately, I’m starting to get used to working from home.’

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