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From a second-year project to an academic paper: ‘It was such a cool opportunity’

It does not happen very often that a research project for a second-year bachelor's course gets turned into a proper academic paper. But International Studies students Pia Kurz, Coleen Gonner and Monika Bartnicka did just that. How did they manage it?

The opportunity was unexpected, according to Coleen. ‘We were enjoying our vacation after finishing the exams when we received an e-mail from our lecturer, Hannah De Mulder. We knew it would probably be a lot of work on top of finishing our bachelor's degree, but it was such a cool opportunity that we didn’t want to turn it down.’

The research project was part of a linguistics course taught by assistant professor Hannah De Mulder. She explains that in the course students explore the influence of language on cognition. How does learning a second language influence your perception of the world, for example? Or, to be a bit more concrete: does it affect how a politician is perceived if they say ‘mistakes have been made’ rather than ‘I have made a mistake’?

Grammatical gender

The students got the inspiration for the topic of their paper during one of De Mulder's lectures on grammatical gender. ‘In German, the word ‘sun’ is female, and the word ‘moon’ is male. In children's books they are often depicted as these genders as well. However, in other languages, it is the other way around,’ Pia explains. ‘We were wondering if that has an impact on how speakers think about these things. During the seminars, we discussed a similar study in which speakers had to assign adjectives to certain objects. Take a bridge, for instance. A speaker of German sees a bridge as elegant whereas a speaker of Spanish sees it as strong.' These associations are presumably influenced by the fact that the word for bridge is masculine in Spanish and feminine in German.

They designed their study in a similar way. ‘We chose to analyse languages that we know, so we picked German and Polish,’ Coleen says. The experiment included various sections. ‘In the first part, participants had to assign names (such as John or Mary) to black and white drawings of objects. We tried to choose objects that didn’t have specific connotations with a particular gender, such as a vase that might be more likely to be associated with femininity,’ Monika adds. ‘After that they had to say whether they considered the names that they picked were masculine, feminine or neutral in gender.’

Surprising findings

Surprisingly, the findings were not as expected. The students thought that German speakers would be more influenced by grammatical gender than Polish speakers. In the German language, when you refer to an object, you have to use the corresponding article which marks its grammatical gender, whereas in Polish, there are no articles. However, whereas Polish speakers did consistently provide female first names for grammatically feminine objects and male names for grammatically masculine ones, this pattern was not observed for the German speakers.

The team came up with a possible explanation for this phenomenon. ‘When we looked into it more closely, we found that in Polish, grammatical gender is marked by the ending of a noun. So masculine nouns tend to end in consonants whereas feminine nouns tend to end in –a. This was something we didn’t think of at the beginning,’ Pia says.

One in a hundred

Although the project resulted in the publication of a peer-reviewed scientific article, that wasn’t assistant professor Hannah De Mulder’s focus for the course. ‘My primary goal is for students to gain research experience. In 99 out of 100 cases, there are all kinds of issues with the projects that the students come up with. But that really doesn’t matter, because they are only second-year students after all, and it’s a learning process,’ De Mulder says.

And that is what makes the three students’ project so special, because theirs is that one in a hundred project. De Mulder elaborates: ‘They thought about all the things you need to think about and they collected data that is interesting enough that it warrants being disseminated to a wider audience. I did point out some things they needed to be aware of, but apart from that, they did the whole thing themselves. That’s really impressive!’

The academic paper by the three students can be read here.

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