Anna Joaquin, an assistant professor of linguistics and teaching English as a second language at California State University, Northridge, spends what time she is not in the classroom trying to understand how people learn their first and second languages, as well as the neurobiology of language learning and use.
Her research and dedication to the growing field of linguistics has earned her a spot in Diverse Issues in Higher Education’s annual list of the top scholars in the country under the age of 40 making their mark in academia. The list appears in the magazine’s Jan. 2 issue.
Magazine officials said the 12 faculty on the list “serve as an inspiration to both students and colleagues.”
Joaquin, 38, said she was honored to be included.
“I was never the best student when I was young,” she said. “I went to a community college first, where I learned to discipline myself. Fortunately, I was able to transfer to UC Berkeley to finish my undergraduate degree and then to get my Ph.D. from UCLA. I never thought I’d receive an honor like this. I am really thankful. I hope it shows students that, even if you don’t start out as the best student, you can still succeed in college.”
Elizabeth Say, dean of CSUN’s College of Humanities, hailed Joaquin’s recognition by Diverse Issues in Higher Education.
“Professor Joaquin is our newest hire in our linguistics program, and already she is leaving her mark in the classroom and her research,” Say said. “We are proud to have her as a member of the college.”
It was between finishing her undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley and before she started her graduate studies at UCLA that Joaquin discovered her interest in language acquisition. She taught English as a second language in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan for about a year.
“Some of my students were university level students with high motivation to learn, while others were illiterate in many ways but also had such high motivation to learn,” Joaquin said. “I thought, ‘Wow, learning a language is not just about motivation or desire. There’s something else.’”
When she returned to the United States, Joaquin took a job with an Internet start-up, but couldn’t shake her interest in language acquisition. She quit her tech job and took a post with a language school in Alhambra, curious to learn more beyond the current pedagogy regarding language acquisition. Her quest for knowledge eventually led her to UCLA, where she did her doctoral work in the neurobiology of language and second language acquisition.
“There are three things you really need to learn a language: motivation, opportunity and biology,” she said. “I think how those three intersect leads to the differences in how people, particularly adults, learn a new language. For example, you can have motivation and opportunity, but if biology isn’t on your side, then there can be a problem.”
Joaquin noted that with society increasingly becoming more global, learning a second or third language is important for many people.
“The problem is, there is no cookie cutter approach on how to do that,” she said. “It’s hard to even predict who is going to be a good language learner. You can give people opportunities and all the motivation you want, but it might not happen because they don’t have the biology/ability.”
Joaquin’s language acquisition research includes language use, English as a second language, the pedagogy for language acquisition, as well as the use of language by people with dementia and language in conversation.
Joaquin said one of her favorite assignments to give students is to ask them to write an essay on how they experienced learning a language.
“I’ve read about 300 of those so far, and haven’t been bored once,” she said. “No two are similar. They are all very different, and they have given me insight into language acquisition, how rich and complex the process is, and how unique it is for every individual.”