Faculty Profiles Fall 2018 More News: Hispanic Studies

Welcome New Faculty: Rachel Varra

How has your first semester at William & Mary been?

It’s been fantastic. Everybody assured me I’d be amazed by the students, and it’s true. It’s tough to learn the new ways of an institution but the students have made it easy: they are highly engaged, on the ball, insightful … I know I can come to the classroom with new ideas and they can think through a problem on the spot, in class discussion. They are remarkable.

Also, the colleagues have been great here, genuine in their offers of support. So many people have come forward and offered their piece of support from their expertise. From all these individual people, I as a newcomer have cumulatively been offered a lot of time and expertise. There’s a generosity of spirit here.

How did you become interested in linguistics?

My family was Spanish-speaking. I heard it growing up, and my first spark of interest in language was when I started seeing bilingual speech practices on TV (in particular The Cosby Show where the mother spoke Spanish on the phone to her friends – I realized what she was doing was worthy of notice). I was young, but that stayed with me. I ended up going to Puerto Rico, to where my grandparents had returned. I saw things that explained to me why my family did what it did and I wanted to communicate with them to find out more, but they were losing their English and I didn’t really speak Spanish. So at 14, I started taking formal Spanish classes in high school (I had been taking Latin before). In college, I planned to go into business but I had some internships that made me realize that business wasn’t for me. I loved languages and found out there was a field called linguistics, and I ended up majoring in Spanish. In my last year of college I got into research and decided to apply to grad school. It was a natural progression, over many years, but the spark came early, from that TV show.

What type of classes do you enjoy teaching the most?

I like keeping my fingers in a range of classes, both highly theoretical and applied ones. They have a lot to offer to each other. I like teaching classes that have a defined goal, where the student produces something creatively that can be applied to the world, where the student can have a sense of accomplishment. For instance, in a class like Teaching Methodologies – students create a personal portfolio, and learn how to plan lessons; concrete and usable products are produced. I also enjoy bringing to bear the findings of linguistics to applied fields like teacher training.

In general, I like teaching classes where students to do their own creative research that would fit into the 3-month span of the semester. (This is actually a feature that I like to incorporate into linguistics and upper level Spanish classes.) I ask students about the questions they want their project to answer and consult individually with them on these projects during the semester.

What I want to work on next is developing training modules and resources for the students who in the future will be working with me in my language lab: Interviewing persons, maintaining social media, data analysis, … Students come with different areas of interest, so developing materials particular to the ways in which they will participate with me is where I’m focused now.

What is the focus of your research? What projects are you working on right now?

My focus is on Spanish in the U.S. and how it changes when it comes into contact with English, either with monolinguals in a community or within the individual. My past research has dealt with lexical borrowings and the extent to which they appear in speech and how they are distributed. What are the chances that these borrowings become a part of the language and are not seen as borrowings anymore? It’s also about who would practice these borrowings, and the perception of what types of individuals would engage in language mixing. For example., middle class Spanish speakers in New York City engage in more borrowing than the working class, and of course the second gen more than the first. For my current research, I am working on Spanish in eastern Virginia. I am interested in an understudied aspect regarding the system of prepositions and how it changes when it comes into contact with English. I want to look at change in the semantics of these systems. Do these changes also subtly communicate something about identity? I expect that Spanish here changes more in unconscious ways, and possibly less in terms of borrowed lexical items.

Any advice or words of wisdom for students starting Spanish this year?

Language learning is a lifelong practice and takes a lot of time. Also, human beings are amazing: when we ask a question earnestly, we get an answer. Any question a person asks will get answered. So I tell my students: Keep asking questions. An answer may come after many hours or years of pursuing it, but an answer always comes.