Texas Tech University

Innovative Research

TTU French professor Kristen Michelson

Texas Tech University's Kristen Michelson, assistant professor of French and Applied Linguistics, has won the 2020 Research Special Interest Group Early Career Award from the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Language (ACTFL).

Kristen Michelson Receives Research Early Career Award

French Professor Says Language Learning is All About Encounters.

12.7.2020 | Toni Salama

Learning a second language means more than acquiring new vocabulary, conjugating verbs and memorizing pat phrases.

For Kristen Michelson, acquiring a new language is a matter of encounters, all types of encounters. In addition to person-to-person interactions are those of immersion in a culture; of experiencing new sights, smells and sounds; of navigating virtual environments; and, most intriguingly, finding common ground where all those elements converge to move the learner forward in a new tongue.

Michelson, an assistant professor of French and Applied Linguistics in Texas Tech University's Department of Classical & Modern Languages & Literatures, believes in such encounters so strongly that she earned her Ph.D. in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching, and has devoted her research to better understanding the varied and overlapping ways in which people acquire and use a new language.

In November, Michelson's work was rewarded with the 2020 Research Special Interest Group Early Career Award, granted by the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Language (ACTFL), the go-to organization for foreign language teachers.

One of the perks of the award invites Michelson to conduct an upcoming webinar, where she will share with other ACTFL members one aspect of her research: how to use digital social annotation tools specifically for teaching reading in a second language in a collaborative digital environment.

"There is a big gap between research and teaching in the foreign language field," Michelson said. "I'm interested in efforts to bring the research and teaching closer together."

The Digital Landscape

Michelson's research centers around the interpretation of text, especially digital text, within the communication landscape. On a web page, for instance, text exists in an environment of colors, images, sometimes motion, sometimes sound.

"What do second-language learners understand," she asks, "and how do they process the text, how do they make use of images, language, overall context?"

She especially wants to understand how second-language learners read and interpret what she calls "everyday texts" such as real estate listings, restaurant reviews, news articles, organizations' informational and promotional web pages, and so on—the practical application of language acquisition.

Michelson brings these everyday texts to her students in what she calls digital social annotated reading—a learning technique where students read online materials via an app or interface. Her students then highlight what they're reading and discuss it with one another in the margins, much as they would in a chat room.

"I like what can emerge when students work collaboratively," she says.

For instance, in one of her fourth-semester French classes in 2019, and in a recent related project, Michelson found that students who read in a digital environment used more French than English in discussions, compared to students who read during in-person instruction. While the purpose of this type of discussion is to encourage interpretation of the new language—and not necessarily the production of it—Michelson's findings point to the strengths of digital learning.

The Road to Francophone

map of France, courtesy of geography.comMichelson encourages her students to embrace the expanded perspectives that a love for languages can bestow.

"I'm grateful to have had the experiences I have," she said, "and I want others to have these experiences too."

One step on her own journey was the choice in high school: French or Spanish. She chose French, she remembers, because of an early childhood experience learning some French words from a family friend.

In the years that followed, Michelson stayed with a host family on a two-week study abroad, later welcoming a French exchange student into her own family's home. As a college junior, she spent a semester abroad and returned to a language immersion summer camp in northern Minnesota, the Concordia Language Villages, as a French teacher and camp counselor.

She took a job teaching English in Germany. One year in Germany became four as the teaching job ended and she accepted another working in sports production at a broadcast station.

And yes, she learned German during that time.

Along the way there was a job where she prepared others to study abroad. There was grad school. There was the dawning of a new possibility—that the acquisition of second languages existed as a field of research.

Ultimately, there was the realization that language was her calling.

"It became part of my life," Michelson said. "I loved French in high school, loved the sound of it. Now that I understand it from the analytical perspective, I love the process of learning a language."

These experiences don't necessarily mean Michelson's path has always been easy. There are times when one's mettle is tested and one's best decisions are forged in adversity. 1994 was just such a time, when Michelson was in Nantes, France, feeling lonely under a perpetually gray and rainy sky.

"I had to be resourceful even in finding friends," she remembered.

Struggling with integrating into French society, Michelson struck up a friendship with another woman whose commitment to learning French was exactly the inspiration she needed to keep going. By the time Michelson finished her master's, the next step on her course was set.

"I had to find my own way in a time that was sometimes miserable but also transformative," she said.

Almost everything she has achieved since then goes back to that personal victory.

"Learning and teaching language has opened possibilities to making connections," Michelson concluded. "Every encounter, people-to-people or online, is a connection point for me to learn how we express those experiences differently."

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Since its founding in 1967, the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Language (ACTFL) has provided vision, leadership and support for quality teaching and learning of languages. The organization encompasses more than 13,000 language educators and administrators from elementary through graduate education, as well as government and industry. Further, ACTFL encourages members with shared interests to network and share information within the larger structure of the association.

To facilitate these activities, Special Interest Groups (SIGs) were formed to provide continuous networking and information sharing on a specific topic or area of interest to a subset of members. The SIG Early Career Award was launched in 2017 and is granted annually to recognize the contribution of scholars who have earned their doctorates within the past five years. Those honored with the Research Early Career Award are evaluated for the impact of their past research and their ability to articulate the trajectory of future research projects.

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