Yumi Matsumoto studies English as a lingua franca in powerhouse ELX Division

February 10, 2017

As the world becomes more connected, people from different countries, who speak different languages, need to find ways to communicate. Yumi Matsumoto examines how people from diverse backgrounds use English as a lingua franca to bridge these linguistic and cultural divides.

Yumi Matsumoto, Penn GSE
Dr. Yumi Matsumoto

When she arrived at Penn GSE in the fall of 2016 as an assistant professor, Matsumoto joined an Educational Linguistics Division (ELX) that has an international reputation of scholarly excellence and a longstanding commitment to preparing students to thrive in workplaces, schools, and universities where people of diverse linguistic backgrounds gather to work, teach, and learn. Not content to rest on the legendary reputations of past ELX professors like Dell Hymes and Nessa Wolfson, current ELX faculty members continue to blaze new scholarly paths.

According to ELX Chair Betsy Rymes, Yumi Matsumoto fits right in with this group. Her insightful, of-the-moment research “bridges traditional investigations in second language acquisition and more current understandings of communication in multilingual settings” says Rymes. “Yumi follows an important ELX methodological tradition of discourse analysis and microethnographic approaches to study teaching and learning.”

Part of the doctoral program in Educational Linguistics, Matsumoto will also be teaching core courses in the division’s master’s programs. Her focus on English as a lingua franca nicely bridges the programs in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and Intercultural Communication by illustrating how all interactions in classrooms depend not just on learning a language or knowing a language, but also on developing broad understandings of communication across diversity in general.

“Yumi’s research and her training as an applied linguist will be a huge asset for students in ELX,” says Rymes, “because students from all our programs are drawn to understanding communication in context and the role of many features of interaction in addition to language knowledge.” In addition to advancing the field of English as a lingua franca, Matsumoto’s work has practical implications for educators in the growing number of international settings where English is spoken.

We recently caught up with Matsumoto to ask her about her research, what drew her to Penn GSE, and what she likes to do for fun.

Q: What originally drew you to a career in applied/educational linguistics?

A: My previous experience as an English teacher at public schools in Japan has definitely led to my graduate studies (M.A. in Second Language Studies at University of Hawaii at Manoa and Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics at Penn State). My major reason for pursuing graduate studies was to become a better educator by exploring theories of language, language learning, and language teaching. Also, I met several inspiring scholars in applied linguistics during my graduate studies, which helped steer my career toward the field of applied linguistics.

How would you describe English as a lingua franca (ELF) to someone outside of your field?

Simply put, ELF is a practice where speakers with various linguistic and cultural backgrounds use English as a means of communication. I am particularly interested in communicative strategies that so-called non-native speakers of English, or what I prefer to call “ELF speakers,” employ in order to successfully communicate with each other despite various differences in terms of language, culture, and linguistic proficiency.

The concept of ELF has also empowered me as a successful multilingual speaker instead of viewing myself as a non-native English speaker who is often compared with a native speaker.

Tell us a little about your work with ELF and gestures for second-language learning and teaching. For example, what kind of things have you discovered? What has surprised or intrigued you the most about your findings? 

In terms of ELF, I focus on miscommunication in ELF interactions and the communicative strategies used by ELF speakers. One interesting and surprising finding is that there is not much miscommunication due to cultural differences in ELF intercultural communication. It seems that ELF speakers prevent miscommunication by making their speech “explicit” based on their awareness of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

As for gestures for second-language learning and teaching, I am very interested in how instructors and students in multilingual classrooms interact with each other by using gesture along with speech, and how students’ gestures demonstrate their language learning and development that might not be visible in their speech. In fact, gesture can become a “window” for demonstrating what students are thinking, which can be a useful resource for language teachers.

What’s next in your research?

My next research projects involve pedagogical gestures for teaching and learning academic writing in multilingual classrooms. Besides gesture, I have been interested in investigating how materials such as textbooks, teacher-prepared worksheets, and technology influence learners, the teacher, and classroom discourse, and how such materials afford learning opportunities in the classroom environment. My research team and I are planning to start our data collection next fall, which will be very exciting.

What advice do you give to anyone wishing to pursue a career in applied linguistics?

Especially because applied linguistics is an interdisciplinary field, I highly recommend that anyone interested in the field read widely and explore concepts from a variety of disciplines, including linguistics, anthropology, literature, communication, sociology, psychology, biology, and physics. All of these areas are potential sources of invaluable insights about language and language learning. Also, I encourage people to gain language-teaching experiences in various contexts so that they can connect theoretical and research knowledge to their teaching experiences. In fact, we can find intriguing research ideas through teaching practice.

What has your experience been like at Penn GSE so far?

I am enjoying the amazing faculty members and students at Penn GSE! It has been wonderful getting to know many talented people here and sharing ideas for research and teaching. It has been thrilling to get myself immersed in such a stimulating academic environment. 

Have you gotten a chance to explore Philly at all?

I love traveling and exploring new places, so of course I have explored Philly! I love art, so my favorite places include the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation, and the Magic Gardens. In addition, I have enjoyed taking photos of street art around Philly. I also love drinking coffee, so I like to go to coffee shops in Rittenhouse Square and Fishtown to read and work. Lastly, I like jogging, so the trail along the Schuylkill riverbank has been a perfect spot during summer.

What are you most excited to get involved with in the Educational Linguistics Program and Penn GSE?

I am most excited about being a member of this wonderful academic community and contributing to it by sharing my various research interests in ELF, intercultural communication, gesture, and humor. Though I obtained my B.A. in Education, I have so far been working in the field of applied linguistics. So it is exciting for me to think more about educational and pedagogical implications, and to collaborate with colleagues on these topics.


Here’s a brief overview of other standing faculty in Penn GSE’s Educational Linguistics Program:

Associate Professor Yuko Butler is an internationally recognized scholar of children’s second-language (L2) and foreign language (FL) development and pedagogy in instructional settings. She examines children’s L2/FL development in relation to their first-language development rather than in relation to native speakers of the target language. Butler has been central to challenging the assumption that children follow universal developmental trajectories, instead focusing on how socioeconomic, environmental, and cultural factors influence learners’ development. Educators in Asia and other parts of the world who struggle to implement one-size-fits-all approaches to child L2/FL education have embraced Butler’s contextually and locally appropriate and effective pedagogical approaches for language learning and teaching. She directs the Master’s Degree Program in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).

Assistant Professor Nelson Flores reveals the insidious coupling of language education with racist beliefs and ideals—what he has termed raciolinguistic ideologies. He has uncovered the historical roots of these ideologies within language education and described how current education policies and practices reproduce them. Still early in his career, Flores is nonetheless making important strides in developing alternative conceptualizations of language education that resist the marginalization of students based on their linguistic background, race, or ethnicity. In addition to his penetrating theoretical work, he is involved in classroom-based research in Philadelphia that helps teachers recognize and embrace bilingual students’ rich linguistic skills and knowledge as important academic resources.

Professor Nancy Hornberger is an intellectual giant in the field of educational linguistics, widely recognized for her breakthrough work in bilingualism and biliteracy, ethnography and language policy, and Indigenous language revitalization. Through her wide-ranging theoretical and empirical contributions, formidable publication record, advocacy for bilingual policies and education, and collaborations with scholars and educators around the world, she has helped shape the field of educational linguistics. In recognition of her ingenuity and impact, Hornberger was awarded the Distinguished Scholarship and Service Award from the American Association for Applied Linguistics in 2008. She is director of the PhD in Educational Linguistics Program.

Professor Betsy Rymes investigates how students use language in their everyday lives, and how teachers can get students thinking about words and their meaning. She has examined how language, social interaction, institutions, and the Internet influence what students learn in schools. She is also an expert on teaching English-language learners. Rymes uses her blog, Citizen Sociolinguistics, to discuss her work. In addition to serving as Chair of the Division, Rymes directs the Master’s Program in Intercultural Communication.

Students in Penn GSE’s Educational Linguistics Division have the opportunity to work closely with faculty within the division and the Graduate School of Education as well as across the University of Pennsylvania’s Ivy League campus in fields such as law, anthropology, and social work.

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