University of Calgary

Q&A: Dr. Jürgen Meisel

Dr. Jürgen Meisel is a new visiting professor in the Department of French, Italian and Spanish. Born in Germany, raised in Frankfurt and settled in Hamburg, Meisel studied at the universities of Tübingen (Eberhard Karls-Universität), Frankfurt (Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität) and Madrid, and is a scholar in romance philology, German, philosophy and anthropology. OnCampus recently spoke with Meisel about his new role at U of C.

OnCampus: What led you to the U of C?

Dr. Jürgen Meisel: My wife holds (Dr. Susanne Carroll) a Canada Research Chair at the University of Calgary since 2005, and the U of C was willing to offer me a position as “distinguished visiting professor” during each fall semester for three years, beginning this year. I am interested in the possibility of working in a department of romance languages—French, Italian and Spanish, in this case—as well as in a department of linguistics. I am particularly interested in the possibilities offered by the recently established Language Research Centre. I think this is an excellent opportunity for all scholars interested in languages and in linguistics, and I am glad to be able to be part of this, especially in the early years of the centre.

Is this your first time working in North America?

I was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego, Department of Linguistics (1971-72) and at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (1973), also in the Department of Linguistics.

What is your role at the U of C?

My position is as a visiting professor in the Department of French, Italian and Spanish (Faculty of Humanities), but I am also associated with the Department of Linguistics (Faculty of Social Sciences). I teach a graduate seminar on first language acquisition for students of French, Spanish and linguistics, and I am working on a number of papers, which I intend to submit for publication and on a book on First and Second Language Acquisition—Similarities and Differences, for which I signed a contract with Cambridge University Press several years ago, and which I hope to finish next year.

What do you like about Calgary and Alberta?

I am not yet in a good position to answer this question, but my impression is that this is a very lively city that  offers good opportunities for a good quality of life—and I hope to discover more of this. As for Alberta, I am particularly attracted by the mountains—hardly a very original answer, but true. I suppose I will have to develop more of an interest for hockey, coming from a country where soccer is the national sport.

What are your research interests?

Initially, I worked on theoretical and romance syntax and semantics.

When I returned from the U.S. to Germany, in 1973—to work as an associate professor at a German university (Wuppertal)—I had to cope with the fact that many of my students were only moderately interested in grammatical theory. Looking for an area which I thought would be important and relevant for my own research interests, as well as for the interests of the students, I decided to work on language issues related to immigrant workers to Germany from Spain, Portugal and Italy.

How did those interests develop further?

 Over the years, my research interests became broader to cover what I like to call “developmental linguistics”—the study of how languages, and most of all grammatical systems, change, either in first or second language acquisition, in pidgin and Creole languages, or diachronically over the centuries. This also includes the reverse process of how linguistic systems attrite, in language loss, for example.

When I was offered the chair of linguistics in the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Hamburg in 1980, I started another research project on the simultaneous acquisition of two languages from birth. We recorded and analyzed the speech of French-German, Basque-Spanish and Portuguese-German children. Two of the central questions to be investigated were whether bilingual children are able to separate their languages from early on and whether their competences in each of their languages are equivalent to those of the respective monolinguals.

These were rather controversial issues in the 1980s. Today, there is a broad consensus—even if many details remain to be investigated—that both questions can be answered positively, and we were able to contribute significantly to this debate, together with a number of Canadian researchers.

What is Sonderforschungsbereich and how were you involved?

Sonderforschungsbereiche (the English translation is collaborative research centre) are the largest research units funded by the German Science Foundation (equivalent to the National Science Foundation in the U.S. and perhaps of SSHRC in Canada). Unfortunately, the humanities are underrepresented among these research centres in Germany—as in many places in the world.

We were, therefore, particularly happy when our proposal was successful in 1999. “We” is a group of professors at the University of Hamburg including linguists, philologists, educators, psychologists and neurologists.

I chaired this group and then became head of the Research Centre on Multilingualism when it was established in 1999. It currently comprises 14 research projects, all investigating various aspects of bilingualism.

At the beginning of this year, I resigned as head of the centre, but I am still part of the board of directors and I direct two of the research projects.