Let’s talk about you: what is your background, what do you teach, and what are your research interests?
I have been a linguist at Ca’ Foscari since my first year at university, when I included Prof. Cinque's Glottology course in my curriculum to challenge its reputation of being "too difficult to take in the first year". Guglielmo Cinque used to present in a fascinating and engaging way the basic principles of generative syntax, applying the principles of basic scientific research to languages. It opened up a world for me to which I immediately longed to belong. My areas of study are the formal (now called minimalist) syntax of Romance, Germanic, and Balkan languages and its applications in the study of acquisition, diachronic and synchronic variation, and the impact of gender on self-representation.
Tell us about your academic path.
I completed a degree programme in Foreign Languages and Literature at Ca' Foscari from 1980 to 1985. Then I studied at University of California, Berkeley in 1985-86. I was a research assistant to Professor Schwarze at the University of Konstanz in 1987. I obtained a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Padua between 1987 and 1991, spending periods at the Universities of Geneva and Washington, and at MIT. From 1992 to 2000, I was a tenured high school English language teacher. From 2000 to 2005, I was a researcher in Linguistics at Ca' Foscari, associate professor from 2005 to 2017, and full professor from then to now.
What are your professional role models / references?
Under the guidance of Prof. Cinque, who was my thesis and doctoral advisor, I came in contact with the leading exponents of generative linguistics from my early years of study; difficult to enumerate them but I can mention Noam Chomsky, Henk van Riemsdijk, Luigi Rizzi. During an exchange year with Berkeley University I studied with Charles Fillmore and George Lakoff, who developed in me the ability to consider alternative hypotheses with scientificity and independence of judgement. Over the years, many colleagues have also become professional landmarks, such as Anna Cardinaletti and Mila Vulchanova. I greatly admire Tania Reinhard for her linguistic and political thinking, and regret not having met her in person.
Have you always known that this was going to be your path?
When I came to Ca' Foscari, I didn't even know linguistics existed. As soon as I realised what it was, I thought that promoting language awareness at all levels can improve the lives of individuals and societies. Knowing the levels of competence of national, regional and local, foreign and classical languages, why languages change over time and space, and why language connotes (non-) belonging to social groups can make us better people, more accepting and more tolerant of those who speak differently. And it can help us accept ourselves even if we do not speak a standard variety or if we live in a country or region that differs from the one where we acquired our first language.
What is the aspect of your research you are most passionate about?
When collecting data on a specific phenomenon, it often all seems confusing, haphazard, completely random. Formulating a theoretical hypothesis allows us to bring order, understand the core of the phenomenon and identify what other phenomena interact to create what looks like chaos. This aspect of theoretical linguistics is one that never ceases to amaze and fascinate me.
What does teaching and researching mean to you?
In my courses, even at an introductory level, I always adopt the scientific method: we observe phenomena, make a hypothesis that can be falsified by actual data, apply the tests provided by the hypothesis and test it. If it is falsified, we try to see if there is any interference with the phenomenon we are studying. Otherwise, we modify the hypothesis or discard it, formulating an alternative hypothesis that will be subject to the same validation process. I do not teach monolithic truths because in scientific study they do not exist. I also teach how to be creative or imaginative in applying the methodologies studied even to small language experiments on dialects, acquisition data, particular language uses.
What has given you the greatest satisfaction in your career?
I’ve had countless satisfying experiences in teaching and scientific recognition. Many students who took advanced linguistics courses with me and did thesis research are now recognised researchers abroad. To have guided their first steps in their professional careers fills me with pride. I was a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge in 2011 and a visiting professor at the University of Paris St. Denis in 2012 and was awarded the title of honorary professor of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Bucharest in 2015. These recognitions spur me on in my research activities, in order to continue to be worthy.
What study area have you always wanted to be involved in, but have not yet had the opportunity to explore?
Computational linguistics in its various aspects: not only statistical and quantitative approaches to the study of language but also aspects of language simulation and analysis of linguistic big data. I am now too old to start over, but working in the VariOpInTA team (Variazione e Opzionalità in Italoromanzo) is making me realise that it's not important to know how to do everything. What is important is to be open to collaboration and to find collaborators who are experts in their field.
What would you say to young people starting their university career?
I tell young men and women to follow their inclinations in specialising in a field among those offered in bachelor’s and master's degree programmes by acquiring methodological tools to continue their education. I recommend not just acquiring knowledge and content, but devoting oneself to developing the skills of applying methodologies to other areas, as well as independent judgement. Knowing how to evaluate an argument is always important in life, not only in professional contexts, but also in civic and private ones.
What would you say to young researchers?
Unfortunately, academic and scientific life is very competitive and does not always reward those who are truly better. This is especially true for young female researchers. But I want to say to never get discouraged and to compete not "against” each other but "together". Networking and teaming rather than working alone leads to an advancement of knowledge that can have important social repercussions, such as better awareness of cognitive mechanisms in acquisition, text comprehension, and identity representation. And this is something that the Italian society is in tremendous need of.
Why Ca’ Foscari and Venice?
In 1980, when I enrolled in the Foreign Languages and Literature degree programme, Ca' Foscari had an excellent reputation for the study of foreign languages in Italy. Because my parents wanted the best for me, they acquiesced to let me go "so far away". For me, Ca' Foscari was the key to human, intellectual and professional growth. Over 40 years later, teaching and research have greatly developed in the scientific study of languages and linguistics. I believe that today, even more than then, Ca' Foscari is a cutting-edge choice of study and professional and intellectual life for those who want to pursue the study of languages, and examine languages from perspectives of nature and culture.