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Undergraduate Research Highlights Student’s Interest in Linguistic Diversity

Jessica Hatcher talks about her research with a fellow student in Caldwell Lounge. Photo by Marc Hall.

Growing up in eastern North Carolina, Jessica Hatcher’s ear became attuned to a range of dialects.

She could hear, for example, that residents of Goldsboro, her hometown, spoke differently than natives of Eden, a town about 150 miles away near the North Carolina-Virginia border.

It wasn’t until Hatcher arrived at NC State that she realized she could study how people talk. Her epiphany came during a meeting of the English Club her freshman year, when she heard linguistics professor Jeff Reaser speak about the North Carolina Language and Life Project. Established by the university in 1993, the Language and Life Project focuses on research, education and outreach programs related to language in the American South.

“I didn’t know linguistics was a field,” Hatcher recalled recently. “So when I learned about that, I kind of freaked out a little.”

Hatcher, now a senior, has made the most of her opportunity to study linguistics at NC State. In addition to being an Honors Program student, a Fulbright Summer Institute scholar, and a recipient of the William and Lesa Edwards College Merit Scholarship, Hatcher has received two undergraduate research grants through the College of Humanities and Social Sciences for her work in linguistic diversity. She got started not long after learning about the linguistics program during her freshman year. While meeting with Reaser, her faculty adviser, she told him she was interested in his work and asked how she could help.  

Since coming to NC State in 2005, Reaser’s research has revolved around issues of linguistic diversity in public education settings. When Hatcher came to him in 2012, he was working on a project along those lines.

Students Jessica Hatcher (right) and Brianna Teague (left) stand with NC State linguistics professor Jeff Reaser at the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics.
Students Jessica Hatcher (right) and Brianna Teague (left) stand with NC State linguistics professor Jeff Reaser at the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics.

Through a Spencer Foundation grant, Reaser and University of Pittsburgh professor Amanda Godley developed a course designed to educate pre-service teachers about language variation. To assess the course’s effectiveness, they recorded each time it was given in an in-person, classroom setting. Reaser’s first task for Hatcher was to transcribe the recordings.

“It was a task that tends to scare a lot of people off,” Reaser said. “Not Jessica, though.”

Using the transcriptions, Reaser and Godley put together new materials that would be used in an online course. Hatcher’s second project was to analyze the online discussions and compare them to the in-person versions. Data from the online courses would serve as the framework for multiple studies Hatcher has helped the faculty researchers conduct. Reaser said he trained Hatcher in broad data analysis, and soon she was one of the top coders amongst her peers, including Ph.D. students.

“Most recently, she’s been the one who has developed and created nuances in the coding system,” Reaser said. “She’s actually coming up with insights and creating systems for what we analyze.”

‘Dialect is a pattern’

Hatcher has helped present findings at several conferences and symposiums, including the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics, the New Ways of Analyzing Variation conference and the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting.

Student Jessica Hatcher stands beside her research poster.
Student Jessica Hatcher stands beside one of her research posters.

She’s also presented at the NC State Undergraduate Research Symposium, where in 2015 she discussed her study of pre-service teachers’ attitudes and knowledge about language.

She said the data she analyzed, which stems from the online courses Reaser and Godley developed, suggest that Southern teachers are more comfortable discussing non-standard dialects than their non-Southern peers. The participants in the online courses came from more socially diverse states and universities and likely had more exposure to stigmatized dialects of English, she said.

It’s possible that the difference in exposure can lead to more awareness of language variation and nuanced and positively-framed discussions of authentic dialect. That’s important to consider, Hatcher said, when designing teacher programs and improving literacy among non-standard speaking students.

“One of the goals is to show teachers that dialects are patterned and grammatical,” Hatcher said. “If teachers have unfair assumptions about dialect-speakers’ potential, it can negatively affect student performance right off the bat. Teachers shouldn’t judge students’ abilities based on their speech. Dialects and abilities are just not correlated.”

Hatcher said in addition to fulfilling her general interest in linguistics, her undergraduate research has helped her develop public speaking, time management and networking skills. Reaser agreed.

“You learn methodology, critical reading, how to think about assumptions; it makes you bring a critical lens to everything else,” Reaser said. “In the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, we want our students to be real critical thinkers, and we think research helps do that. “It changes how you approach everything in the world.”