Connecting language and identity

Dr Corinne Seals (School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies) has dedicated her life to researching how language and identity are connected—and she is a perfect example of the interplay between the two.

Corinne Seals leans on a chair in the Hunter Council Chamber
Corinne, a senior lecturer in applied linguistics, was raised in California by a Ukrainian-American mother and American father. She is a heritage language speaker of Ukrainian and Russian, which means she has a family connection to these languages. She grew up in an English dominant home and had regular exposure to Spanish. She was also deeply affected by the language policies that were in place while she was growing up.

“I grew up during Proposition 227, which was a law passed in California that made it illegal to use any language other than English in the mainstream classroom.

“My mum’s a teacher, and she would come home so upset because she wasn’t allowed to speak Spanish with students from Spanish-speaking countries—it was considered to be a fireable offense in most districts. They would have school administrators drop in to classes to make sure no one was using languages other than English.”

When Corinne began her undergraduate studies at UC Santa Barbara, her initial focus was law—“Surprisingly, I wanted to be a public prosecution attorney, that was my thing.” She began to focus on linguistics after she took it as an elective and realised the impact linguistic research could have on reforming language policy and supporting multilingualism.

“I did finish the BA in Law degree, because I found it fascinating. But I went to a talk by a professor who said ‘You need to choose to do something you love and that loves you back,’ and that really resonated with me. While I loved law, some aspects of it were not my forte. But with linguistics, I just loved it right away, and it felt natural to me.”

Corinne completed her Masters of Science and PhD at Georgetown University, where she focused on sociolinguistics and applied linguistics—and was given the opportunity to visit Aotearoa for the first time, to present her research on heritage language speakers.

Several years later, she was offered a chance to return to take up a role at Te Herenga Waka. She and her partner were ready for the dramatic change in lifestyle—but faced a mixed reaction from family, who didn’t want them to leave the country.

“The only one who outright encouraged us to go was my grandmother, who learned Spanish at 84 to travel to Guatemala. She’s the one who said, if you don’t go, you’ll always think ‘what if’.

“She always encouraged me to explore. I grew up with her saying to me, ‘I’ve lived my life thinking I would read every book and see every country, but my time’s running out, so you have to continue that.

“With her, there was never a question of ‘could I do it’—it was always a question of ‘how do I do it.’”

Corinne carried this attitude with her throughout her studies, when she would find increasingly creative ways to cover the cost of her living expenses while pursuing her education.

“I’ve worked so many odd jobs—sometimes I think to myself, ‘I’ve done such weird stuff, was that real life?’

“I’ve delivered pizzas, served coffee, worked as a brand ambassador for a toothpaste company, and worked as a personal assistant for a former US ambassador. I once worked as a production assistant for the reality show The Real World. I served ice cream at a store where you had to sing a jingle when a tip is given!

“I like to talk about this really openly with my students, because they’ll often feel somewhat ashamed about having to work random jobs. Working in jobs like that builds character—you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to make your journey and passion a reality.”

Corinne carries her dedication to exploring and honouring different cultures on her body—she has eight tattoos, each with personal cultural or linguistic significance. The clear favourite is her wristband, which is based on Ukrainian traditional embroidery.

“The embroidery is unique to each region, and this one represents where my family is from.

“It’s the same type of embroidery you see on a rushnyk, a cloth that goes with you to your baptism, and your marriage, and on your coffin—it follows you throughout your life.”

Corinne spends her free time weaving together her three passions—“my research, my communities, and my animals”—by working with Wellington Rabbit Rescue, leading Translanguaging Aotearoa, supporting the Ukrainian Education and Support Trust, and taking on private cases as a forensic linguist—the application of linguistic knowledge to criminal cases and judicial proceedings. All her work, both personal and professional, is based around her desire to continue working with the communities that matter to her.

“One of the questions I always remind my students of, and always ask myself, is ‘Who is this research for?’ Whoever the answer is, then you need to make sure you’re doing what those communities are asking for—the research needs to remain grounded within those communities.”