Professor Alison Wray
BA (Hons), D.Phil (York), FHEA, FAcSS, FLSW
School of English, Communication and Philosophy
View my animated film, Understanding the Challenges of Dementia Communication
I have a BA and D.Phil in linguistics from the University of York and had a 3 year postdoctoral in the Music Department of the same university. After working as a linguistics lecturer at what is now York St John University in York, I became Assistant Director of the Wales Applied Language Research Unit, Swansea University. In 1999 I was made a senior research fellow at Cardiff University, and subsequently a Reader, Professor and Research Professor.
I have been Director of Research for the School's of English Communication and Philosophy since 2004.
- Plenary speaker, Formula: Units of Speech - Words of Verbal Art, University of Helsinki (May)
- Plenary speaker, Europhras conference, Trier (August)
- Plenary speaker, 7th Formulaic Language Research Network conference, Vilnius (July)
- Plenary speaker, ISLE postgraduate conference, Amsterdam (June)
- Symposium speaker, University of Oslo Multiling project (October)
- Guest speaker, University College London (November)
- Guest speaker, University of California Davis (November)
- Guest speaker, University of Queensland (December)
- Keynote at CLaRE international workshop, Language use in later life, Louvain-la-Neuve (December)
- Keynote at Older Minds, New Ideas medical conference, Cardiff (October)
- Public research seminar, University of York
- Invited speaker, Multiling project, University of Oslo
- Plenary speaker at 6th International Formulaic Language Research Network conference, Swansea University
- Plenary speaker at American Association for Applied Linguistics annual conference, Portland, Oregon
- BBC World America interview (onward broadcast on National Public Radio across USA) on the dementia summit in London
- Interview on BBC Radio 4 Word of Mouth (on language in Alzheimer’s care)
- Invited speaker at annual conference of Deutsche Academische Austauschdienst (DAAD) UK, Cumberland Lodge, Windsor
- Interview on BBC Radio 4 Word of Mouth (on formulaicity in language learning)
- Plenary speaker at 5th International Formulaic Language Research Network conference, University of Tilburg
- Invited speaker at Smatterings, public engagement weekend seminar at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor
- Invited speaker at UN Older Person’s Day on Promoting active and healthy aging. Cardiff
- Plenary speaker at conference on Language as social and cultural activity, University of Basel
- Invited speaker, day seminar on Formulaic language and language teaching, University of Nantes
- Invited speaker, launch of University Committee for General & Applied Linguistics, British Academy, London
- Public lecture, Research Institute for the Arts and Humanities, Swansea University: Making Impact in the Humanities: Linguistic Research to Improve Quality of Life in Older People
- Workshop, ESRC Research Methods Festival, Oxford, Critical Reading & Writing
- Philological Society Annual General Meeting, SOAS: Goings on in the ‘house of ill-repute’: why we are tolerant of irregularity in language?
- 4th Formulaic Language Research Network Conference, University of Paderborn, Germany, Plenary lecture: Learning a second language using formulaic sequences; workshop on critical reading and self-critical writing
- Guest lecture, ‘Memorisation and L2 learning: reflections on process and product’, Dept of Education, University of Oxford
- Plenary: Annual Welsh for Adults Tutors’ conference, Llandudno
- Plenary: ICAME 30 conference, Lancaster: What we do, how we do it, and why it matters: corpus research in applied domains
- Beijing Foreign Studies University: But is it formulaic? What counts as formulaic language? How do definitions support good research?
- University of Business & Economics, Beijing: Formulaic language: a linguistic solution to a non-linguistic problem?
- Nanjing University: a) Formulaic language research: overview and new developments; b) Developing reading and writing skills in postgraduate study
- First national Chinese conference on formulaic language, Beijing: New developments in formulaic language research
- Plenary: British Association for Applied Linguistics, Swansea, Taking the measure of genetic variation in language; Postgraduate workshop: Critical reading in applied linguistics
- Workshop, ESRC Research Methods Festival, Oxford, Critical Reading & Writing
- 3rd International Formulaic Language Research Network postgraduate conference, Nottingham
- Brain and Aging Program, School of Psychology, University of New South Wales; Dementia collaborative Research Centre, University of New South Wales
- What is special about the gene? One day conference, Cardiff
- British Association for Teachers of Japanese, annual conference, Cardiff
- University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Linguistics Symposium on Formulaic Language, USA
- Vice Chancellor’s Lecture Series, Cardiff University
- Cradle of Language Conference, Stellenbosch, South Africa (withdrew)
- Linguistic, Psycholinguistic and Computational Aspects of Idioms and Collocations, Berlin
- Workshop, ESRC Research Methods Festival, Oxford, Critical Reading & Writing
- Phraseology, Université de Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium
- Corpus Linguistics, University of Birmingham, UK
- IATEFL International Conference, Cardiff, UK
- Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of
- Behaviour (SSAISB), University of Hatfield, UK
- New Trends in Language Teaching, Turku, Finland
- AHRB Centre for Evolutionary Analysis of Cultural Behaviour, University of Southampton
- Language Learning Round Table on Language Evolution, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA
The central focus of my research is developing innovative models that can account for patterns observed in language. My primary contribution in the past few years has been in characterising formulaic language (prefabricated wordstrings).
Formulaic language encompasses strings of words that:
- appear to be stored whole in memory for convenience (e.g. thank you very much; what I mean is)
- are particularly frequent in text (e.g. in the middle of?)
- have a social importance for particular people (e.g. present arms)
- are memorised or repeated,
- and/or are non-compositional in form or meaning (e.g. by and large; woe betide).
Drawing on observations of formulaic language in a variety of contexts, I have developed models of how language is learned, processed and stored, and have applied them, through experiments and other investigations, to issues in first and second language acquisition, language disability and the evolution of language. I have written about the role of formulaic language in translation, the capacity for formulaic language materially to improve the quality of a non-native speaker's interaction, and the nature of formulaic language in language disorders including Alzheimer’s Disease.
Linguistic theory at the boundaries: The development of macro-theory that relates linguistic form and function to the cognitive and social aspects of language behaviour. Rooted in the models of formulaic language acquisition and use (see above) more recently they have broadened to examine the ‘word’ as an inherently vague phenomenon, and language as a fundamentally hybrid system. Current work entails a new theory of how cognitive and social pressures on language production are managed into a steady state of fluency using options in form selection.
Communicative Impact: In 2014, I began work on a new model of how the act of communication interfaces with language processing. It draws together socio-interactional and pragmatic theory with models of cognition, to demonstrate how forms of language are shaped by what we need to achieve through communication, and how language is used to make good shortfalls in communication when the speaker is under cognitive pressure. The model combines my previous work on formulaic language, Alzheimer’s Disease and second language acquisition, and it is designed to offer opportunities for experimental interventions in situations where communication is typically undermined by reduced cognitive capacity and/or lexical access problems, including Alzheimer’s and post-childhood foreign language learning. The model is being written up in book form, with a target completion date in 2016. I am developing training materials to support professional and family carers of people with dementia, that address the causes and potential to alleviate the stress of being a carer in this context.
Language profiling: Supported by a £40,000 grant from Alzheimer’s BRACE, I am PI on a project exploring early linguistic markers of risk for future Alzheimer’s disease. The study participants are part of a parent project called PREVENT, funded by the Alzheimer’s Society (PI Prof Craig Ritchie, University of Edinburgh). The research builds on previous projects that examined and developed new approaches for analysing written or spoken language samples, to inform questions such as: the capacity for individual foreign language learners to adopt nativelike strategies (e.g. in relation to risk); assisting language examiners to differentiate the output of proficient learners from the (often identical) output of text memorisers; identifying measurable linguistic features (including pseudo-quantified qualitative features) for genetic profiling; the development of normative measures for the language of older people. Collaborators in this work included Dr Tess Fitzpatrick (Swansea) and geneticists at the Queensland Institute for Medical Research, Brisbane.
Current and past funded projects
- 2015: £3000 from the ESRC Impact Accelerator fund. This project focusses on developing training materials to support those who care for people with dementia. These materials are the ‘impact’ dimension of my current research into ‘communicative impact’, which examines the unaccustomed pragmatic spaces that are created in conversations with a person with dementia.
- 2014-15: £40,000 grant from Alzheimer’s BRACE to look for early linguistic markers of future Alzheimer’s disease. Co-investigators and researchers: Dr Andreas Buerki, Prof Tess Fitzpatrick, Dr Michael Willett, Dr Katy Jones. Poster from the 2015 Brace Annual meeting
- 2014: £5000 from the Cardiff University College for Arts and Social Sciences Pilot project fund, to test the research instruments for the Alzheimer’s BRACE project. The pilot was conducted in collaboration with members of the Monmouth University of the Third Age
- 2010-14: £100,000 from the ESRC Researcher Development Initiative scheme, to develop training materials for enhancing expert thinking and problem solving in the social sciences. Co-I: Professor Mike Wallace, Cardiff University. Publications: 2014a, 2015a
- 2010-12: £303,000 from the Welsh Assembly Government. I was academic director of a project exploring how to improve the teaching of Welsh to adults. Collaborators were from the Cardiff Welsh for Adults Centre and School of Welsh and Oxford and Swansea Universities.
- 2010-11: £76,000 from the ESRC, for psycholinguistic phenotyping of lexical retrieval preferences through an analysis of word association behaviour. PI: Dr Tess Fitzpatrick, Swansea University. Researcher: Dr David Playfoot. In collaboration with genetic epidemiologists at the Queensland Institute for Medical Research, Brisbane. This work compared teenage and >65 yr old twins, to identify patterns of difference in word retrieval. Publications so far: 2013f
- 2007-08: £100,000 from the AHRC to develop new analytic techniques for profiling language phenotypes in genetic research. Co-I: Dr Tess Fitzpatrick; researcher: Eugene Mollet. In collaboration with genetic epidemiologists at the Queensland Institute for Medical Research, Brisbane. This work entailed a multifaceted programme of profiles of written data by native speaker twins, in order to explore the relative roles of genetics and environment on patterns in linguistic performance. Publications: 2010c, 2011e
- 2006-07: £13,000 from IELTS to develop a practical approach to the accurate evaluation of linguistic knowledge when memorised material is reproduced in language tests. Co-I Dr Christine Pegg, Cardiff University and IELTS. Publications: 2009e
- 2002-03: £51,000 from the AHRB for research into how unintentional changes during the reproduction of memorised material indicate both the linguistic knowledge of language learners, and their attitude to risk. Project researcher: Tess Fitzpatrick. Publications: 2006e, 2008e, 2010b
- 1999-2000: £5,000 from the Nuffield Foundation for analysis of data from TALK, a conversation aid for people with cerebral palsy, based on formulaic language. Publications: 2002b, 2010b
- 1988-91: £61,000 from the Leverhulme Trust for practical and theoretical work on pronunciation in singing. Publications: 1988, 1989, 1990a, 1992b,c, 1995a,b, 1999a, 2000a, 2002e-g, 2003a,b.
Student support and capacity building
In 2002 I founded an informal association of researchers called the Formulaic Language Research Network (FLaRN), which now, as e-FLaRN, has more than 200 members. It is primarily aimed at PhD students but also has many members in academic posts. If you are interested in joining, please firstname.lastname@example.org for information. Since 2004, FLaRN has had a biennial conference. The next conference is expected to be hosted by the Dept of English Philology, University of Vilnius, Lithuania, June 28-30th 2016.
I supervise PhD students on aspects of formulaic language in first and second language contexts, including language attrition. I am also a supervisor on the distance PhD programme in Applied Linguistics (Lexical Studies).
Current PhD students
- Mark Maby: Second language learners’ acquisition of polysemous words
- Paula Psyllakis: Formulaic language in Alzheimer’s Disease.
- Mike Green: The role of phonological patterns and etymology in the acquisition of formulaic sequences
- Stephen Cutler: The role of formulaic language in speech memorisation and production in L2 speakers of English
Past successful PhD students
- Helen Emery: Spelling in Arab learners of English. Awarded 2005
- Iain McGee: Formulaic Language and Second Language Learning/Teaching. Awarded 2006.
- Kazuhiko Namba: Bilingual children’s code-switching: a structural approach and formulaic language. Awarded May 2008.
- Yanling Su: Formulaic language acquisition and individual differences. Awarded December 2008.
- Amjad Saleem: Memorising in a language you don’t speak. Awarded 2015.
From time to time, workshops on formulaic language are organised under the auspices of the School’s Advanced Research Residencies scheme - a forum for PhD students and visiting scholars to discuss issues in their research.
In a separate strand of research and training, I have explored the nature of research expertise in the social sciences, particularly ‘thinking like an expert’. This work, with Mike Wallace as co-I, was supported by a three-year ESRC Researcher Development Initiative Award (see Wray & Wallace 2011 for an account of the principles). Mike and I are also co-authors of Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates and conduct workshops for PhD and early career researchers on this topic. In 2010 I gained two coaching qualifications and am now developing a brand of coaching suitable for the university research context.
In the past I have also researched historical pronunciation, reconstructing English and other languages for performances and recordings of early music. In this capacity I have advised on over 80 commercial CD recordings (including some international award winners), BBC broadcasts and major public concerts.
To date I have published more than 90 book chapters, journal papers and other articles in the linguistics and musical spheres. Most of them are listed under ‘publications’