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Meet Them Where They Are

It can sometimes be challenging when, in academia, we’re called to talk to people in a different department, different college, or different field. They may come prepared with a wholly foreign skill-set and an unfamiliar background that can make it challenging to find common ground. These difficulties are made even more apparent when doing outreach. That’s why it’s so important to meet them where they are; to learn how to explain insights in a way that is sensible and intriguing to outsiders and that resonates with what they already know.

Some of this “meeting where they are” is physical. Going out into the community is often aided by actually going out. Just as in your academic life, an in-person meeting with community members who may be interested in having you in to do an activity or bringing a group to your university can often be more insight-provoking than just an email or a phone call. And it can’t hurt to increase your or your university’s visibility in the world around you.

But, even more, it means meeting people where they are in terms of their background knowledge. There are very few people outside of academia who are familiar with the language sciences. Yet people are more familiar than they think with some of the things that are interesting about it. We are fortunate to have a field that can take a lot from everyday conversation and insights. For example: 

  • They might know people who are bilingual, or wonder why learning a second language is so hard, but haven’t heard about bilingual advantages or age of acquisition effects on second language learning.
  • They know how to form a question, but they don’t realize what that can tell us about the structure of English.
  • They might have realized that there is no particularly straightforward reason why the word “island” should have an “s”, but they might not have heard about the influence of Latin-speaking monk’s on English orthographic development, and so on. 

Don’t be afraid to dazzle, either. Meeting them where they are is also a matter of finding cool tricks that people outside the field might find intriguing. If you have taught an introductory level course in a language science field, you might have some of these on hand that you use to liven class up a little bit. Don’t be afraid to stupefy, to astound, or to titillate. Expletive infixation in English isn’t just fun as a joke, but also as a pathway to talking about lexical stress, or morphology, or the Stroop task, or the semantics of curse words. Don’t hesitate in being theatrical, so long as you tie it in to science at some point. And including interactive activities can help, too.