English is the most spoken language in the world, spoken by 25% of the global population. Like all languages, it is dynamic and changing all the time. Currently, there are four times as many people speaking English as a second language than as a mother tongue — and there are many varieties of the language.
As a linguist and social interaction researcher, Alia Amir, a senior lecturer in English linguistics at Mid Sweden University in Stockholm, studies the patterns of spoken and written language in society. Much of her work has focused on the science of English classroom interaction.
“English has been my main area of interest in academia because it is such a huge language,” Alia says. “It is such a powerful language at the present moment because of colonialism, because of American imperialism, and because of so many other factors; it has spread so widely, and the language has actually been adopted and adapted by the various communities in different countries."
Alia’s work on language policing focuses on a special kind of code-switching; she found that explicit verbal directives to speak English in classrooms are not used as often as implicit, subtle ways. This shows that most social actions are completed by humans without explicitly talking about them — they are invisible until an interactional problem arises.`
“Sociolinguistics is basically language in use...everything is done through language, right? Our personalities, our relationships are actually all related to how we speak, what kind of words we use. Even the word order matters — how we create a sentence, or how we write and speak, not just in formal academic contexts, but in our everyday lives, as well.”
- Alia on sociolinguistics as a field of study
Her doctoral dissertation focused on language policing in an English classroom in Sweden, where the teacher and students enforced an English-only policy. Alia discovered that when a teacher focused too much on getting students to speak only English to each other, it wasn’t always an effective approach.
“So let's say the teacher stops the grammar lesson she’s teaching mid-way to remind a student to speak in English instead of Swedish. It often takes a bit of time for the teacher and the class to go back on track to what was being taught before,” she says. “So in certain contexts, language policing was found to be counterproductive. If you want more practice of English, you can instill that in the pupils in more implicit and subtle ways rather than explicitly policing pupils verbally in the classroom, for example, reminders to speak the target language in the beginning of the lesson.”
Since receiving her Ph.D. in 2014, Alia has expanded her research to other topics in sociolinguistics. In 2020, she published an analysis of English textbook content in Sweden, in which she demonstrated the textbooks’ lack of cultural inclusivity and incorporation of different varieties of English.
“Textbooks are an important part of education, and a part of sending the message to the future generation how we can create an inclusive world. So textbooks should be created by incorporating the latest cutting-edge research findings about inclusion and diversity, which will help us envision a better future in the world,” she says. Currently, many English textbooks don’t include enough representations of English speakers and culture beyond the United States and UK, she found. “There was a general trend of more exposure to, for instance, American popular culture. And that was very visible across different textbooks.”
Alia was born in Pakistan and grew up in Saudi Arabia. She moved to Sweden in 2008, where she wrote her master’s thesis — a comparison of English language policies during British India and the present day — at Linköping University.
After completing her graduate studies in Sweden, she took on several positions as a senior lecturer in English linguistics at several universities across Sweden. She has also been a guest lecturer at several universities in Turkey, where her lectures focused on her research findings about code-switching and language policing in English classrooms.
In January 2021, Alia took a full-time role as senior lecturer in English linguistics at Mid Sweden University, a primarily teaching position with 20% of time dedicated to research. Alia is conscientious about uploading all of her publications and conference presentations on ResearchGate and sharing her work widely across social media.
“As a researcher, my biggest wish would be that people read my work,” she says. Since she started devoting time to growing her profile on ResearchGate and other platforms, she says the number of reads on her ResearchGate publications is encouraging. Alia says it’s also important to connect with other researchers to find like-minded people in the field, meet possible future collaborators, and see how her work can be applied in different ways.
“For instance, I’ve created a taxonomy for language policing,” she says. “And I would like people's reviews, and would like them to test those theoretical perspectives in other contexts.”
Alia has also used ResearchGate to connect with other researchers in her role as co-founder of the Muslim Scientists Europe network. The group conducts and shares interviews with Muslim researchers in an effort to dismantle stereotypes and raise awareness of their work in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM fields.
“The motive behind that network is also to inspire young people and young children, and to put faces to different kinds of research and diversify science — because that's an area which needs a lot of work,” she says.
“The job market is getting tougher for academics. And also, there are many biases within academia; in fact, academia needs constant decolonization, as well. Some of the topics and subjects do get less citations — for instance, social sciences and humanities as compared to chemistry or physics and mathematics. And you need to push yourself a bit and socialise in a kind of community, like ResearchGate, for instance.”
- Alia on the importance of networking as a young researcher