“Corpus-Assisted Ecolinguistics”. Anna Raimo interviews Robert Poole

Intervista in italiano

Robert Poole is an Assistant Professor of TESOL and Applied Linguistics at the University of Alabama. He earned his Ph.D. in second language acquisition and teaching from the University of Arizona in 2015. His research focuses on corpus-aided discourse study, ecolinguistics, and the use of corpora in language teaching and learning. In recent years, he has published articles in journals such as Computer-Assisted Language Learning, Journal of English for Academic Purposes, Critical Discourse Studies, and Environmental Communication, amongst others.

First of all, I would like to thank you on your behalf for giving us the opportunity to interview you and to finally talk about your latest work: “Corpus-Assisted Ecolinguistics”, published by Bloomsbury. Why did you decide to produce such a huge study and what prompted you to summarise the various lines of research in ecolinguistics?

I am honored by your invitation to discuss my book. To your question, my primary motivation was to contribute to the expanding scope of ecolinguistics, particularly corpus-assisted approaches to ecolinguistic analysis. In my view, corpus-assisted research in ecolinguistics has been somewhat narrow over the years with research in this space primarily investigating texts/corpora of immediate ecological relevance. For example, the largest amount of research in this space has explored the use of climate change and its various equivalents in the media of numerous national contexts. Indeed, this is valuable research, but I think corpus-assisted ecolinguistics can be pursued elsewhere. Thus, I wanted to investigate spaces less frequently explored and/or implement methods less commonly applied.

Each of the studies in the book emerge naturally from spaces in which I have particular interest. For example, I enjoy research in stylistics and corpus stylistics immensely, and so I attempted to illustrate a corpus eco-stylistics approach for the analysis of literary texts. Similarly, I sought to extend the great work being done in diachronic corpus analysis to issues of environmental relevance. The same sort of motivations are reflected in other studies in the book as well.  In a sense, I simply looked to the work that has most inspired me and explored how a corpus-assisted ecolinguistic approach could be applied in these spaces. My book essentially aims to illustrate that corpus-assisted ecolinguistics can (and should) be applied more widely. I hope readers will think I have done so successfully and perhaps see ways in which they may do so in their areas of interest and expertise.

As for the first chapter, you started with Einar Haugen’s definition “the study of interactions between any given language and its environment” and later you used the definition of the Internal ecolinguistics association (IEA). Would you briefly introduce the core of your study?

Haugen is obviously a key figure in the emergence of ecolinguistics and his 1972 text “The Ecology of Language” is where the definition you mention is extracted. His work motivated a great deal of research in various areas of language studies. However, my work is more informed by the discourse analytic tradition emerging from Halliday’s 1990 AILA talk and the subsequent essay titled, “New Ways of Meaning: The Challenge to Applied Linguistics”. The Hallidayan approach to the exploration of the interconnection between language and ecological wellbeing is reflected in the mission statement of the IEA. Certainly, both strands, the Haugen-informed language ecology and the Hallidayan discourse analytic tradition, have motivated a great deal of valuable research. Ultimately, my study emerges from the Hallidayan ecolinguistic tradition as it explores, if I may borrow from Steffensen and Fill (2014), the question: “Do linguistic patterns, literally, affect the survival and wellbeing of the human species as well as other species on Earth?” (p. 9). My interest in this question is at the core of my book.

Please note that my division of the two strands is rather simplistic, and I would recommend reading the aforementioned Steffensen and Fill article from Language Sciences for a more thorough treatment.

What role did the IEA, founded by Professor Arran Stibbe, have in the design of your study?

The IEA is a wonderful international community, and I have been fortunate to attend one conference in-person and another online. Certainly, presenting at the International Conference on Ecolinguistics in Odense, Denmark in 2019 is a highlight of my career. I have enjoyed contributing to the organization as bibliography editor and subject representative for corpus-aided discourse analysis.

As for Professor Stibbe, his work has been a great inspiration to me, and the first edition of “Ecolinguistics: Language, Ecology and the Stories We Live By” is a major influence on this work. Indeed, for those who have read his book, the reflections of his work in my own are quite evident. As mentioned elsewhere, I turned to the people and the work that has inspired me and attempted to add a corpus analytic approach. For example, one of Stibbe’s chapters discusses the framework of evaluation and how it may be usefully applied within ecolinguistics. Evaluation has often been explored in corpus-assisted work. So, when I apply evaluation within my text, it is a combination of evaluation from Stibbe with the methodological techniques of corpus linguistics.

Professor Stibbe has been a generous supporter of my work, and I am grateful that he has taken time over the years to answer questions and discuss ideas with me. Indeed, the broader scope of corpus-assisted ecolinguistics that I previously mentioned is informed and inspired by his writings on the need to move from discourse analysis of ecological texts to ecological analysis of discourse (see Alexander & Stibbe, 2014). It may seem a rather minimal shift, but it is really quite profound. My text is attempting that shift, and readers can determine whether I have done so successfully. All of that being said, the design of the various studies in my text are my own.

I thought it was very interesting to start his work using Alexander Humboldt (and his brother) as inspiration/or reference. I was wondering if you considered other writers as reference related to the interconnection and interrelatedness of all the elements of the physical world?

I recall reading Andrea Wulf’s “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World” (2015) and being simply mesmerized by the account of his life and work. It seemed an appropriate starting point for the story I was trying to tell. Of course, there are other ways to tell the story, but considering the origins of ecology, this seemed an appropriate beginning point. Others may begin with Darwin or Haeckel. Perhaps it’s simply my personal preference, but Humboldt’s Naturgemalde and Cosmos seem great starting points to discuss the history of ecolinguistics and ecological thinking. I am mindful, however, not to say that ecological thinking began with Humboldt or with Haeckel’s actual coining of the term. Ecological thinking has long been present in non-Western epistemologies.

Which are the main new elements in your book? Why did you choose to analyse different textual genres?

I hope readers will see the value in my extension of corpus-assisted ecolinguistics to some less frequently explored areas and through some less frequently applied methods. Ecolinguistics studies have analyzed literary texts; ecolinguistic studies have explored representations of place; ecolinguistics studies have performed diachronic analyses; ecolinguistics studies have investigated representations of nonhuman animals. I simply hoped to highlight the potential of corpus-assisted techniques in these spaces in ways either minimally pursued previously or not at all. Perhaps researchers in corpus stylistics will be inspired to integrate ecolinguistics into their work. And similarly, perhaps researchers interested in diachronic analysis will look to topics of ecological relevance. I wanted the text to appeal to a broad audience from multiple research backgrounds. Additionally, and maybe this is a bit self-indulgent, but each chapter/study and the texts/corpus they analyze are of personal interest to me. I enjoy reading environmental fiction—let’s analyze it. I enjoy thinking and reading about representations of place—let’s analyze it. I care about depictions of nonhuman animals and think how we speak of nonhuman animals is important—let’s analyze it. It was personally and intellectually appealing to me to venture into these spaces, build the necessary corpora, and explore!

Which steps did you identify during your analysis using the diachronic approach?

I don’t think I necessarily identified new steps or produced a new methodological approach, as the methods I apply are implemented elsewhere in diachronic corpus studies. I suppose you could say I mashed together various techniques (e.g. application of Kendall’s Tau correlation coefficient) with corpus linguistic theory of collocation and the framework of evaluation for ecolinguistic aims in novel ways. Diachronic analyses in (corpus-assisted) ecolinguistics are not especially common—Fusari (2018) and Frayne (2019) are two noteworthy exceptions. I should mention the work of Cinzia Bevitori as well, as it often has a diachronic element. I find diachronic analyses to be particularly insightful, as I think it is common for people to assume that the ways by which we encode the world around us are somewhat static. Yes, people understand that language changes, but they may not so easily recognize that the ways we discursively represent an entity or construct also evolve.

Which highlights are there in the book The Overstory and why did you decide to analyse it?

Richard Powers’ “The Overstory” (2018) is an absolutely wonderful work of fiction. While the environmental themes are clear, it remains an accessible book for a broad readership. In a sense, it is about the environment but also not really about the environment. You don’t need to be an environmentalist to love the book. That was part of the appeal of analyzing the book.

With texts such as Peter Wohlleben’s “The Secret Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate” (2016) and “The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature” (2021), we are learning so much about trees. Trees and forests are having a moment, as more people are recognizing their importance for mitigating the consequences of the climate crisis. Recalling Halliday’s “New Ways of Meaning” once more, he writes about how the English language restricts agency of inanimate entities, and as I discuss in my book, data from the Corpus of Contemporary American English illustrates this point as instances such as “The tree/s is/are holding water” etc. are uncommon if not wholly absent. While reading “The Overstory”, it is clear that trees are not simply narrative adornment. They are part of the story, not the background to a developing plot. And thus, I wanted to explore the language of trees in Powers’ text and the language through which they become animate.

Are there other examples of novels that could be analysed from an ecolinguistic perspective?

Absolutely! And I hope more research will explore this space. I read quite a lot of speculative fiction and climate fiction, as I am quite interested in the world building that takes place in these pieces. Initially, I was most drawn to books that portrayed a recognizable near-future in which apocalyptic climate change scenarios are depicted. As I read more of these novels, I have become interested in more distant worlds that emerge from climate crisis but are not necessarily in the midst of it. For instance, Ken Stanley Robinson’s Aurora (2015) is shaped by climate change, but its story is not set amidst rising oceans and burning landscapes as found elsewhere in climate fiction. Instead, it portrays a group of people—I suppose we could call them climate change survivors—searching the universe for habitable places.  From an ecolinguistic perspective, and again reflecting the influence of Stibbe on my own research, I think these stories are immensely valuable and are deserving of attention from a sort of integrated stylistic and (corpus-assisted) ecolinguistic approach. How are these worlds built? Are they reproductions of present systems that have contributed to the climate crisis or do the authors present new systems and new ways of being? How does the hope they represent potentially motivate readers to engage in sustainable actions in the present? I feel these are interesting questions to explore from an ecolinguistic perspective.

Could you give us some instances of novels that do not belong to Anglo American literature?

I do try to read environmental fiction from around the world. One of my favorites is from the Finnish author Emmi Itäranta titled “Memory of Water” (2014). I would also recommend Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor’s “Zahrah and the Windseeker” and “Who Fears Death”, Egyptian-Canadian El Akkad’s “American War” (2017), and indigenous authors such as Rebecca Roanhoarse’s “Trail of Lightning” (2018) and Louse Erdrich’s “Future home of a Living God”.

How do you think people could be made aware of this? What about stories like “Silent spring” written by Rachel Carson (1962), should we read this kind of stories to our children in order to improve a closer bond to nature?

Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962) is perhaps the clearest example of a ‘story’ impacting our perception and understanding and subsequently shaping our action. As others have stated, Carson’s text marks the beginning of the modern environmental movement in the United States. To your broader question, I don’t know if I have an answer. I think there is important work being done in sustainable education and critical language awareness. Historically, pedagogical applications of critical language awareness have focused upon social issues such as inequality, oppression, racism, and exploitation but with only marginal interest in environmental concerns. However, I think we are starting to recognize and understand that social justice is inseparable from environmental justice. And thus, there are more applications/integrations of critical pedagogies with environmental themes. For instance, Goulah and Katunich’s “TESOL and Sustainability: English Language teaching in the Anthropocene Era” (2020) brings sustainability to the forefront of the English language learning classroom. It is an inspiring text. These sorts of pedagogical innovations will hopefully continue.

Are ecolinguistic studies appreciated and valued in the academic world? Is this topic becoming more attractive? Could you mention most promising innovations for upcoming years?

Absolutely! And I think this appreciation is growing. In the Ecolinguistics Bibliography I maintain for the International Ecolinguistics Association (IEA) on Zotero, there are approximately 500 citations for publications connected to ecolinguistics across a growing number of journals. Of course, Language & Ecology (the journal of the IEA) has long published research in this space, but ecolinguistics research can be found in a number of journals. For example, the Journal of World Languages has a forthcoming special issue on ecolinguistics and Text & Talk just released a special issue on ecolinguistics as well. Ecolinguistics studies can be found in venues such as Critical Discourse Studies, Corpora, Environmental Communication and many more. I think this growth will continue. And the series from Bloomsbury in which my text appears also demonstrates the growth of the field.

What are you currently working on? Which are your future perspectives regarding the job?

My interest remains in exploring applications of corpus-assisted ecolinguistics in spaces perhaps less frequently explored and/or through methods less commonly applied in ecolinguistics. My current ecolinguistics work would be characterized as corpus-assisted diachronic analysis. I’m keen to explore changing representations of terms/constructs of environmental relevance over time in a manner similar to the analysis of wilderness in this book. I think such work can help identify practices in language use that are deserving of critique as well as those discursive changes worthy of praise and promotion. Perhaps a next book will be more narrowly focused on diachronic analysis.

Future perspectives on the work? The international ecolinguistics community continues to grow with active regional organizations in Europe, China, Brazil, and Nigeria—I hope the community in the United States will expand as well. I feel the work is urgent and important, and I’m happy to see development in this space. I’ll be here doing the work the best I can.


Anna Raimo
Anna Raimo è nata a Pisa il 25 dicembre 1995. Laureata magistrale con il massimo dei voti in Linguistica e didattica dell’italiano nel contesto internazionale presso l’Università degli Studi di Salerno e l’Universität des Saarlandes di Saarbrücken, ha in seguito conseguito un Master di II Livello in Didattica dell’Italiano L2 presso l’Università degli Studi di Napoli L’Orientale. I suoi interessi di ricerca spaziano dalla linguistica e didattica della lingua italiana alla storia, letteratura e poesia contemporanea. Si è infatti occupata dell’italiano dei semicolti nella sua tesi di Laurea Magistrale e ha recentemente pubblicato un articolo su una particolare varietà della lingua italiana: "L’e-taliano: uno scritto digitato semifuturista?", in (a cura di S. Lubello), Homo scribens 2.0: scritture ibride della modernità, Franco Cesati Editore, Firenze 2019, pp. 159-164. Tra i suoi autori preferiti vi sono Mario Vargas Llosa, Jung Chang, Philip Roth, Azar Nafisi, Orhan Pamuk, Anna Achmatova, Rainer Maria Rilke, Federico García Lorca, Alda Merini, Bertolt Brecht e Wisława Szymborska. Le sue passioni sono la lettura, la scrittura di poesie e i viaggi, soprattutto in Germania, paese di cui adora la storia, la cultura, l’arte e i magnifici castelli.

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