The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Research > Investigating Sociolinguistic Diversity from the Perspective of Phonology


Knowledge Co-Creation - Profiles of researchers

Investigating Sociolinguistic Diversity from the Perspective of Phonology

Sylvain Detey
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

From an Interest in Knowledge to Language Sciences

My expertise is in applied linguistics, which is a field of research that explores language acquisition and learning, as well as the relationship between society and language. There are two major fields within applied linguistics: foreign (or second) language education and natural language processing for computerized systems. My main topic of research is French as a foreign language, with a special focus on phonology, which is the study of the linguistic organization of sounds. My research includes collecting samples of French being spoken around the world into a linguistic database known as a corpus, and analyzing the wide variety of spoken French, particularly on the pronunciation level.

When I think back, I’ve always had a fascination with the concept of knowledge since my high school days. How do humans acquire and express knowledge? How is expert knowledge of a range of subjects, such as philosophy, mathematics and language expressed? For instance, in mathematics and cosmology, the concepts of two, three and four-dimensional space are each expressed in their respective body of knowledge. When discussing the fifth and sixth dimensions and beyond, bodies of knowledge that are unfamiliar to most of us are used. I have always admired philosophers who pursue abstract concepts and mathematicians who lock themselves in labs in intensive research, while also being curious about researchers who were more connected with society, such as linguists and sociologists.

Philosophy is a compulsory subject in French high schools. Students learn critical thinking through a variety of philosophical thought, ranging from Greek philosophy to the works of Freud, Heidegger and Lévi-Strauss. I developed an interest in philosophy at an early age. I tried reading Schopenhauer when I was in junior high school, although I can’t say I understood much of it. I entered preparatory classes for Grandes Écoles when I was 18 and began studying abstract algebra, but changed course to study linguistics in college. Many of the problems that modern society has to deal with are wrapped around and intertwined with problems of communication. I began thinking that by pursuing a deeper knowledge of the structures and functions of language, I could contribute to the development of language sciences as well as try and help solve some of our sociocultural problems.

One of the great experiences that I had during my years in college was teaching French to foreign exchange students as a part-time job. Linguistic theories may sometimes seem quite abstract and remote from daily usage and language-related issues, and it was important for me, in researching language, to maintain a strong focus on its relation to actual use in society. After graduating from college, I obtained a full-time position as a French Lector at the University of Salford in England, while studying for my master’s degree at a French graduate school to continue my research in second language education.

Experiencing Japan Without the Help of Japanese Language

When I was thinking about doing a doctoral degree, I was contemplating whether to continue working in England or France but eventually made the decision to go to Japan, a place I had been very curious about for many years. When I was a teenager in France, Orientalism was booming, and many people were interested in Asia and Japan. I also started learning karate and kung fu, and read books on Japanese culture and society. During my second year in college, I became acquainted with a group of Japanese exchange students, and got invited to a party. I remember taking off my shoes before entering the room, eating hot pot and other Japanese dishes and noticing how well-mannered and considerate everyone was. I was really attracted to these Japanese sensibilities.

Picture 1: During my first years in Japan as a French language teacher

I was also interested in Japan as a subject of research. I was especially interested in the interrelations between speech and writing representations in foreign language education, so I thought Japanese would be the ideal language for my study because of its complex use of kanji, kana and roman characters. I continued my research for my doctoral degree while teaching at the well-established French language school, Athénée Français. Combining a full-time teaching load and doctoral research was quite intense and hectic, but I felt that building an educational experience in Japan at the historic Athénée Français, and observing how native Japanese speakers learn French in Japan were very important for both my career and research in second language education. During those four years in Japan, I eventually had the opportunity to teach as a part-time lecturer at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Meiji University and Keio University. Also, by joining scientific societies and research societies, I gradually began understanding the Japanese academic system.

What I felt was a very important part of my experience in Japan was the fact that I came to Japan with very little knowledge of the language, which allowed me to experience Japanese society and culture without the help of words. In recent years, there are many young Japanophiles visiting Japan who have studied the language extensively in their home country, and can speak fairly well by the time of their first visit. Surprisingly, however, linguistic skills acquired solely in textbooks or classrooms might sometimes limit one’s ability to communicate on a deeper level, an observation particularly true for Japanese, given its complex and subtle sociolinguistic dimension. For instance, in order to use common Japanese phrases such as “otsukaresama” and “yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” one must understand the intricate cultural and situational nuances that these expressions convey. French people enjoy arguments, debates and discussions, and conversations don’t end without a clear distinction of black and white, while Japanese people have a tendency to intentionally blur the lines and end conversations on an ambiguous note. Comparing these differences between French and Japanese is similar, to a lesser extent, to comparing different varieties of Japanese. In Japanese, there are differences in nuance of expressions between standard Japanese and the Kansai dialect. This does not mean that one is superior to the other, but that both have their positive and negative attributes. Communication in a foreign language starts with this cross-cultural understanding, and using the language without this understanding may actually lead to conflict.

Organizing Large-scale International Collaborative Research

After completing my doctoral course, I obtained a tenured position as an Associate Professor at the University of Rouen in France and thus decided to leave the country. I loved Japan and didn’t want to leave, but to become a university professor in France is extremely competitive, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity when I was fortunate enough to receive it. I also felt that gaining teaching and research experience in France was crucial for my career if I were to ever go back to Japan.

At the University of Rouen, I mainly taught applied linguistics to graduate school students, while gaining valuable experience in my research. Before I returned to Japan in 2009, I co-launched two large-scale international collaborative research projects. The first was the result of a collaborative research that included 33 universities and 58 researchers from 13 countries including Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Central African Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Ivory Coast, Japan, Norway, South Korea, Switzerland, and The Netherlands, in which samples of conversations with native French speakers in many different parts of the world were collected using the same methodology. Using this corpus of spoken French, we analyzed pronunciation, lexicon, syntax and discourse to help researchers, teachers and learners of French and French linguistics worldwide. There is not a comparable project, even in English, that matches the scope and scale of this one.

Later, I co-directed another similar collaborative project that included 41 universities and 63 researchers from 26 countries, this time with a specific focus on pronunciation both of native and non-native speakers of French. The results of each of these projects were published as books (see pictures 2 to 4). In addition, we made all the data that we collected and analyzed available online as audio data and other formats. Both of these projects took almost 10 years to complete.

Picture 2: Les Variétés du Français Parlé Dans l’Espace Francophone - Ressources pour l’Enseignement. S. Detey, J. Durand, B. Laks, and C. Lyche (joint editorship), Ophrys (Paris, France), November 2010

Picture 3: Publication concurrently written in English: Varieties of Spoken French. S. Detey, J. Durand, B. Laks, and C. Lyche (joint editorship), Oxford University Press, July 2016

Picture 4: La prononciation du français dans le monde: du natif à l’apprenant. S. Detey, I. Racine, Y. Kawaguchi, and J. Eychenne (joint editorship), CLE International (Paris, France), December 2016

Figure 1: Coding system (structured analysis) of the IPFC program

I first started when I returned to France and joined a corpus research program entitled PFC (Phonologie du Français Contemporain [Phonology of Contemporary French]), which was started in 1999 by Jacques Durand, one of my two PhD supervisors, and his colleagues. In addition, after contributing to the expansion of this research program through this collaborative project, I started the IPFC (Interphonologie du Français Contemporain [Interphonology of Contemporary French]) in 2008 with my colleague Professor Yuji Kawaguchi.

Picture 5: Picture of me and my former professor Jacques Durand (emeritus professor at the University of Toulouse), when I invited him to Waseda University to give a lecture in October 2017

While I was building on my research experience through these projects, I was also keeping an eye on and maintaining close ties with Japan. I was fortunate enough to find a position in the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University in 2009, which was the ideal environment for my research. On the educational level, in a larger perspective, my undergraduate seminar students interested in French studies engage in research on a wide variety of topics based on comparative analyses between France and Japan. For example, one student is comparing the advertising and marketing techniques of Air France and Japan Airlines through text analysis. Another student wrote a 114-page graduation thesis in French, despite the fact that he had only studied a little bit of French in high school. That student went on to study abroad in Paris, where he earned his master’s degree and is now completing his Ph.D. programme, while at the same time teaching social sciences in French.

If I can, I would like to continue my research in Japan for as long as I can. I believe that there is a lot of room for improvement in second language education and international education in Japan, and by applying my own expertise I aim to contribute to the development of international communication of Japan and its people.

Sylvain Detey
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

Sylvain Detey graduated from the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail, and received his master’s degree and Ph.D. at the graduate school of the same university. After teaching and researching at the University of Rouen as an associate professor (Faculty of Linguistics), he assumed his current position in 2009. He received the 2016 Waseda University Research Award (High-Impact Publication). He is also the author of many essays and publications.