Ph.D. student wins Fulbright to study English as a lingua franca in Malaysia

Marcella Caprario headshot

Marcella Caprario has taken what she calls a winding road into the field of linguistics. It started with her growing up in a multicultural, multilingual home, took a turn into classical music and years as a professional singer and then came to a head while volunteering with English language learners at the International Center in New York City, not knowing when she started that this would change the course of her life.

That volunteering led to a desire for further education in this field, so she enrolled in a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certificate course. After teaching at a language institute, she fell in love with linguistics, earned a master’s degree, taught English at the university level—mostly in China and the United States—and did volunteer teaching in her community.

Still wanting more, Caprario found NAU’s Ph.D. program in applied linguistics, which is highly regarded in the field. Excited at the prospect of learning from the professors here, she applied, was accepted and began her program in 2020 as an NAU Presidential Fellow, guided by her mentor, Naoko Taguchi, a renowned professor in the Department of English. As her journey continues, that winding road is leading to Malaysia, where she’ll spend six months doing research on a Fulbright Scholarship.

“My research interests have grown directly out of my experiences as a teacher and learner in multilingual environments,” Caprario said. “All my life experiences have led me to this point, and I feel I am doing exactly what I was born to do.”

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program, of which the Fulbright Scholarships are a part, aims to create global connections by providing opportunities for U.S. students and young professionals to do research, teaching or education abroad. Participants work, meet, go to class and live with people in their host country as part of the cultural exchange.

Taguchi, who understood Caprario’s research interests and goals and helped her to hone this project, said the Fulbright is evidence not only of Caprario’s drive and talent but also the importance of her work to the field.

“Marcella has grown so much as a researcher and teacher over the past two years,” Taguchi said. “She is diligent, driven, open-minded and hungry for new knowledge. She is also independent and can work on her own, networking with scholars in the field and exploring new opportunities, and I’m very proud of her.”

English as a lingua franca

Caprario’s research focuses on the use of English for intercultural communications among people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Malaysia is a linguistically diverse, multicultural environment, making it an ideal candidate for Caprario to continue her research. She connected with linguistics professor Jagdish Kaur at Universiti Malaya, whose work heavily influences hers, and she agreed to host Caprario from Jan. 16 to July 15.

Her work proposes the creation, implementation and assessment of intercultural communication training materials. The instruction focuses on using communicative strategies, which have been documented in research on English as a lingua franca (ELF). These strategies benefit communication by helping speakers build rapport and mutual understanding, as the ability to communicate effectively is more important than communicating in a technically correct way. This communication style could include appropriately referencing a conversational partner’s culture and ignoring or adopting a conversation partner’s nonstandard language.

Lingua franca: any of various languages used as common or commercial tongues among peoples of diverse speech; something resembling a common language

“Driving this project is the importance of effective communication in global environments where miscommunication can result in serious consequences, such as lost business, educational and personal opportunities,” she said. “Moreover, successful intercultural communication is crucial for building greater understanding and appreciation for diversity in global and local settings.”

What this will look like in the field is creating an instructional intervention that tests the efficacy of teaching materials that meet the educational needs of diverse users of English for intercultural communication. At Universiti Malaya, Caprario will develop teaching materials and assessments, teach a group of participants and test their performance before and after the teaching intervention to see how effective the curriculum was. In addition to the testing, Caprario will have the students keep journals about their experiences and collect them at the end of the project, and she will interview a few of the participants.

The goal is to develop a curriculum that can be taught to ELF students from a variety of cultures, which then will lead to greater intercultural communications. This will improve people’s lives and build more understanding across national, ethnic, racial and other human-made boundaries. It’s a lofty and important mission in an increasingly global society but not one that has been researched extensively.

Caprario’s work will provide a curriculum and data to back up the curriculum’s efficacy. It also brings to the fore the importance of effective intercultural communication and English as a lingua franca for two connected reasons: first, the majority of English speakers in the world are native speakers of other languages, and second, these speakers often use English to speak with each other rather than with native English speakers. English language teaching and research doesn’t always reflect those realities.

“English language teaching and assessment continues to prioritize the linguistic norms of speakers from English-dominant countries, like the United States,” she said. “This may be appropriate for learners who aspire to study, work and/or live in an English-dominant country. However, given the role of English as a global lingua franca, that is not the goal of the majority of global English learners, nor is it always a realistic learning goal. This study demonstrates teaching and assessment materials that prioritize communicative success defined as achieving mutual understanding, positive relationships and the speakers’ own communicative goals, rather than how closely speakers can approximate the English of a native speaker. This is something that many scholars and advocates argue for, but such materials have not yet become widely available.”

Taguchi said this type of research closely aligns with the Fulbright mission of intercultural collaboration and co-living as well as NAU’s mission of diversity and inclusion. It’s a step forward in the field of English as a lingua franca and intercultural communication generally.

“Marcella’s research is much needed in today’s globalized society,” she said. “As we experience increasing interdependence of people across geographical boundaries, we need to become intercultural speakers who can skillfully navigate interactional demands across cultures. Marcella’s pedagogical program can directly address this need.”

NAU Communications