Research in Linguistics and Applied Linguistics

Find out about the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies’ dedication to research in linguistics and applied linguistics.

About Applied Linguistics research

Applied Linguistics links the study of language (Linguistics) with the teaching and learning of languages. Our School has a strong international profile in Applied Linguistics, in particular in vocabulary studies and second language learning and teaching. Applied Linguistics covers a wide range of areas, including:

  • investigating language in classrooms (classroom-based research)
  • different kinds of written and spoken texts (corpus linguistics)
  • how learners approach language learning (learner autonomy)
  • testing and assessment of language learning, and
  • vocabulary (including multiword expressions).

We also look at bilingualism and multilingualism, interpretation and translation, and dictionary making.

About Linguistics research

Linguistics is the systematic study of the structure of language and the way it is used.

Researching the structure of language involves several areas. Phonetics and Phonology focuses on the sounds of human languages and the ways they pattern in particular languages, including global sound patterns that make up the prosody and intonation of different languages. Morphology examines the internal structure of words, and Syntax is concerned with describing and accounting for the way words are grouped into larger structures like sentences.

Sociolinguistics researches the uses of language. It examines the relationship between language, its users, and its uses. At Victoria University of Wellington this research extends to the study of New Zealand English.

Studying language use also involves Discourse Analysis which focuses on extended written and spoken texts to identify how language is used to convey social meaning. Research into the cognitive implications of the analysis of language structure, learning and use are the concern of Psycholinguistics.

Classroom-based research

School staff and research students engage in a range of classroom-based research. Research in this area can use qualitative and/or quantitative methods but has a common concern with describing and understanding language use and/or processes of language teaching/learning in classrooms at any level.

Data for classroom-based research studies are collected in the context of ongoing teaching/learning in classrooms (including virtual learning environments).

Thesis research in this area is supervised by:

Cognitive linguistics

The school of thought known as Cognitive Linguistics treats language as an integral part of cognition, and linguistic phenomena as 'motivated' by people’s general cognitive abilities and their interaction with the physical and the social world. Regarding language acquisition, Cognitive Linguists emphasise the importance of item-based learning, such as the learning of multiword ‘chunks’, and they explore ways of helping learners get to grips with the challenge for memory that this entails.

Corpus linguistics

The School is the home of the Wellington Corpora of Spoken and Written New Zealand English and the New Zealand component of the International Corpus of English, managed by Bernadette Vine.

A corpus is a principled collection of machine-readable authentic spoken or written texts. Corpus studies attempt to identify patterns of language use, e.g. lexicon, grammar, discourse, in a relevant corpus or corpora. These patterns are relevant to a variety of research questions in both linguistics and applied linguistics. In addition, quantitative research is carried out in the area of learner corpus research.

Thesis research in this area is supervised by:

Discourse analysis

Discourse analysis is the study of language in use, both in spoken and written contexts (see also Sociolinguistics). The School has extensive involvement in research in this field, including through the Language in the Workplace Project, and in classrooms (see also Classroom Based Research).

Thesis research in these areas is supervised by:

Languages of the Pacific

Almost one-quarter of the world's languages are spoken in the Pacific, making it linguistically the most complex region in the world. Our School has a strong tradition in Austronesian/Pacific research, and several of our staff members share a common concern with describing and helping to maintain and revitalise indigenous languages in this region. Thesis research in Austronesian/Pacific languages is supervised by:

Miriam Meyerhoff (current research interests: Vanuatu languages; language contact; language variation and change; language attitudes and language policies)

Sasha Calhoun (current research interests: prosody; phonology-syntax interface; Samoan; Māori; Polynesian languages)

Corinne Seals (current research interests: heritage language policy; Pasifika language policy; language education; translanguaging; Māori; Samoan)

Victoria Chen (current research interests: Austronesian comparative syntax and diachronic morphosyntax; languages of Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia)

Learner autonomy

When we look at learner autonomy and learning strategies, we consider questions such as: ‘How do language learners actively approach, manage, and control their own learning processes for the successful completion of learning tasks?’ and ‘How can learners develop as independent, social, and responsible individuals?’.

The School has a strong tradition in research in learner autonomy and learning strategies. The School also collaborates closely with the Language Learning Centre, which facilitates and supports independent language learning.

Research students in these areas are supervised by:


Paul Warren has an interest in the psycholinguistic study of the lexicon.

New Zealand English

The distinctive nature of the New Zealand variety of English has been a prominent area of research within the School for many years. Databases of New Zealand lexis have been developed in the School’s New Zealand Dictionary Centre (NZDC) and the research database of Spoken New Zealand English (NZSED) is held in the School.

School staff and research students are involved in research projects which include:

  • sociolinguistics
  • phonology and phonetics
  • lexis, and
  • corpora studies.

Research on New Zealand English is supervised by:

New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL)

The Deaf Studies Research Unit (DSRU) within LALS is a centre of excellence for research on New Zealand Sign language and the Deaf community.

David McKee and Rachel McKee lead work on the description and grammar, and sociolinguistic and applied topics such as variation in NZSL, language policy and practices affecting the NZSL community, teaching and interpreting sign language. Deaf Studies offers postgraduate research supervision in these areas.

Phonetics and Phonology

The School’s strong tradition in research in phonetics and phonology includes descriptive work on New Zealand English (NZE) and on Oceanic Languages. The School has developed a research database of Spoken New Zealand English (NZSED), and has hosted projects on the intonation of NZE and other varieties (SPOT).

In 2008, the School hosted the 11th international conference on Laboratory Phonology.

Thesis research in these areas is supervised by:


Prosody and intonation, i.e. the rhythm, timing, and tune of speech, are an important part of spoken language. Prosody and intonation have a huge range of functions, including focusing attention on particular parts of a spoken message and organising discourse, signalling syntactic structure, and showing the attitudes and emotions of the speaker. Research carried out by members of the School has looked at some of these functions of prosody and intonation in English and other languages, including the interaction of prosody and focus, and prosody and syntax. Current PhD projects in this area include a study looking at the rhythm of Pakistani English.

Sasha Calhoun and Paul Warrren welcome applications for research projects looking at prosody and intonation in languages.


Psycholinguistics is the study of the mental representations and processes used in the production and comprehension of language. The School has hosted several projects in this area. These include:

  • a project looking at production and perception aspects of sound change in language (e.g. the merger of the EAR and AIR vowels in NZ English)
  • an investigation of the psycholinguistic aspects of morphological productivity
  • the use of prosodic information in the resolution of sentence ambiguity, and
  • the interpretation of syntactic ambiguity by non-native speakers of English
  • the on-line processing of formulaic language by first and second language speakers using behavioural and eye-tracking methodologies
  • the on-line processing of gender stereotypes by children, adults, and the elderly, using behavioural methodologies

Current PhD projects in this area include a study of the use of sublexical information and language selection in word recognition in bilinguals and a study of the developing phonological system of second language learners. Paul Warren welcomes enquiries from prospective research students in the area of psycholinguistics as does Sasha Calhoun. Anna Siyanova welcomes applications in the area of psycholinguistics of formulaic language.

Second Language Acquisition

Second Language Acquisition (SLA) is a broad research field. At the School, our focus is largely, although not exclusively, on instructed second language acquisition. See other topics in this list such as Classroom Based Research and Vocabulary for research areas that overlap with SLA research at the School. Our SLA research interests include the roles of task-based interaction, feedback, and focus on form in language learning, socio-cultural perspectives on language learning, learner autonomy, and acquisition of intercultural competence (including intercultural pragmatics).

Staff who supervise postgraduate research in Second Language Acquisition include:


Sociolinguistic research examines the way language is used in different social contexts.

There have been several large scale projects in the School over the past three decades representing our strengths in Sociolinguistics. These include:

  • the Wellington Social Dialect Project (aka the Porirua Project), a social dialect survey of New Zealand English in the Wellington area
  • studies of language maintenance and shift in a number of New Zealand speech communities (including the Samoan, Tongan, Greek, Cantonese, Gujarati, Fiji Hindi, and Dutch communities in Wellington)
  • the Wellington Spoken Corpus of New Zealand English (WCSNZE) and New Zealand's contribution to the International Corpus of English (ICE NZ)
  • the Language in the Workplace Project (LWP) investigating effective communication in New Zealand workplaces using a discourse analysis approach
  • studies of how speakers handle variation in situations of language and dialect contact, e.g., creole languages, second language speakers of English.

Many of these research projects have also incorporated consideration of issues of ethnicity and gender. We have hosted major international conferences—International Gender and Language Association Conference (IGALA) in July 2008, and New Ways of Analysing Variation - Asia-Pacific in May 2014. Staff who supervise postgraduate research in Sociolinguistics are:


Syntax (along with phonology) is seen by many people as the core business of linguistics. At Victoria University of Wellington, it is possible to study formal syntactic theory and variation and change in syntactic structures across languages and over time. We have particular interests in the syntax (and comparative morphosyntax) of Austronesian languages and contact languages (e.g. creole languages).

Prospective PhD students wishing to research in this area are invited to contact Victoria Chen. Dr Chen's own research has focused on the syntactic structures of Austronesian languages.

Testing and assessment

The central concerns of language testing include the development, validation, and analysis of language tests. Language assessment, on the other hand, focuses more on the classroom use of language assessment for the purposes of learning and teaching.

Research in these areas is currently supervised by:


Vocabulary has received a great deal of attention in the literature on language learning in recent years and has been an area of strength in the School since the 1960s. Research at LALS has involved topics such as:

  • the creation of the Vocabulary Levels Test — a diagnostic test designed to measure the vocabulary learners know at different levels of frequency
  • the creation of the Academic Word List — a list of the words which are most useful for learners to know when studying at university
  • determining the vocabulary size necessary to understand a novel, newspaper, conversation, or movie.
  • the acquisition and use of formulaic language in first and second language users
  • incidental vocabulary learning.

PhD and MA research on vocabulary is currently being supervised by: