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Lisa Cheng appointed new Scientific Director of LUCL

As of the 1st of January 2021, Lisa Cheng, Professor of General Linguistics, will be the next Scientific Director of the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics (LUCL). She tells us about LUCL and shares some of her thoughts about her upcoming role.

Since first coming to Leiden University two decades ago, Lisa Cheng has witnessed first-hand the many changes the university has undergone. As for LUCL, she remembers the time before LUCL was even established:  ‘I started in Leiden back in 2000. And LUCL was established in 2008. This was the first time that all linguists at Leiden University were brought together under one roof.  So you could say that I was there from the very beginning.’

‘Linguists are everywhere’

With over 250 members, LUCL is home to a wide variety of experts specialising in languages from all over the globe, like Iraqw (spoken in Tanzania), African sign languages, Hittite (Anatolian, Indo-European), Brazilian Portuguese and Russian to name just a few. LUCL members teach in 17 BA programmes and 13 (Research) MA programmes, including programmes not focusing on regions or languages like International Studies, Urban Studies, Journalism and New Media, and Translation.

As Cheng explains, ‘LUCL consists of linguists of all stripes. Many non-linguists do not realise how broad and how interdisciplinary linguistics is.’ She adds, ‘LUCL members also frequently collaborate with researchers outside of LUCL in fields such as medicine, biology, archaeology, computer science and area studies.’ 

Cheng herself is a theoretical syntactician; her main research and teaching is about the theory of language structure. ‘I am particularly interested in how languages are similar or different in terms of their structure, because I am interested in language as a system,’ she says.

Finding a balance

When asked about the things she would like to focus on as Scientific Director, Cheng doesn’t hesitate: ‘I would like to take the term ‘Scientific Director’ quite seriously. The stress and frustrations you hear about amongst researchers often have to do with the fact that there isn’t enough time to actually conduct research. As Scientific Director I would like to help members of LUCL find the balance between research and teaching, which is the other half of our core business. It is through doing both properly that we find our greatest happiness.’ 

Even though Cheng has been at LUCL for a long time, she realises that there are many new members she hasn’t met. ‘I hope to be able to get to know everyone in the institute so I’ll probably have to talk to a lot of people,’ she laughs. She goes on to say, ‘I’d like to know what the institute means for our members, and how they see themselves as members of LUCL. In the coming years, the institute needs to move forward as a whole, and we need everyone on board.’

Lisa Cheng obtained her BA and MA in linguistics at the University of Toronto, and she got her PhD at MIT, under the supervision of Noam Chomsky. She grew up in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Boston and Toronto. She was assistant and then associate professor at the University of California at Irvine, before moving to Leiden. She was a co-founder of the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition. Since 2017, she is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). She has successfully acquired a number of NWO grants as well as an EU FP7 large-scale collaborative grant.

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