As someone whose eyes used to glaze over every time she attempted to read an academic article, I never thought I’d co-op as a research assistant, let alone attend an academic conference and enjoy myself. To my surprise, that’s exactly what happened when I attended the Conference on Multilingualism in Ghent, Belgium last September.
I had the opportunity to travel to COM 2016 with my colleagues in the psycholinguistics lab I’m currently working at in Germany. Since I’m trying to figure out whether a career in research is a good fit for me, attending the conference was the perfect way to get a feel for the scope of work being done in my area of interest, while also providing the opportunity for me to network with professionals in the field. However, I didn’t realize how truly shaping the experience would be, on both personal and professional levels.
The sheer range of ideas presented at the conference was mind-boggling. While the conference was centered around multilingualism, the presentations given stemmed from educational, social, developmental, and medical roots, reflecting the wide variety of stances from which multilingualism can be explored. Additionally, even if some presenters discussed the same topic, there was often a large range of opinions that emerged. The conference actually opened with what was noted as being a “heated discussion” between scholars in the field who had contrasting opinions about executive functions and the role they may play in the bilingual brain. Four speakers with varying opinions on that subject presented their talks, and the discussion that followed the presentations was way more intense than anything I expected to hear at an academic conference. I find that I rarely question the contents of academic articles because I assume whoever wrote them knows better about the area in question than I do. However, interactions like this taught me that questioning the research of others can be instrumental to making new discoveries and creating relevant debates within a field.
Attending this conference also made me realize how such a forum provides the perfect opportunity for networking. If you are especially interested in what some researchers are studying, attending their presentations allows you to learn more about their work, and catching them during one of the countless coffee breaks provides a perfect casual opportunity to connect with them. Additionally, speaking to other attendees about the work they and their colleagues do can serve as a great way to create contacts for yourself. For instance, after speaking to a postdoc from the University of London about my interest in sign language, she gave me the name of someone in her lab researching sign so I could look up her work and potentially contact her, a connection I never would have made without attending the conference.
Perhaps the most important thing I got out of the conference was the heightened ability to connect with the authors behind the research being presented. Since I often have a hard time relating to academic articles on a personal level, having ideas that would fall flat to me on a page be explained by the authors themselves made complex studies feel a lot more accessible. As much of the research I’m currently doing on co-op involves second-language processing (a topic relevant to multilingualism), it was cool to flip through my abstract booklet and realize that I had already read the work of several of the presenters; hearing what I had previously read be discussed brought me to a new level of clarification, which I gratefully brought back to Germany with me.
Aside from all the insight I gained from this conference, it also afforded me the amazing opportunity to go to Belgium. Ghent was an especially charming city, as evidenced by the classic buildings and cat cafe I found while walking the streets. Plus, unwinding from a long day of presentations by eating a waffle on the edge of the River Leie became a go-to post-conference ritual. Both waffles and conference considered, I couldn’t have asked for a better three days in Belgium.
This blog was written by Nicolette Pire, a junior Combined Linguistics and English major. She is currently pursuing her second co-op as a research assistant in the psycholinguistics group at the University of Kaiserslautern in Germany. An aspiring polyglot, she’s using her first international experience to immerse herself in as many cultures as possible while sharing her international faux pas along the way. Feel free to reach out to her at email@example.com.