Mihaela Pirvulescu

Language Studies Professor Mihaela Pirvulescu
After completing her PhD in theoretical linguistics at U of T in 2001, Mihaela Pirvulescu felt something was missing. So she found the necessary component to make her research more satisfying by incorporating youngsters into the mix and they now inform practically all aspects of her life.

“I love children,” proclaims Pirvulescu, as her face lights up. “I have always loved working with children and I have the most fun when I do the research experiments with them.” Currently an associate professor in the Department of Language Studies at U of T Mississauga, Pirvulescu’s research focuses on children’s acquisition of object clitics, which is a type of pronoun, while learning French as their first or second language. “In French, the clitic seems to be detached, but in fact it depends on a host,” explains Pirvulescu. She gives the example: Est-ce-qu’elle mange la pomme? Oui, elle la mange. (Translation: Does she eat the apple? Yes, she eats it.) In the French phrase, the “la,” which is the object clitic, functions similarly to “it” in English. “Our research focuses on how [children] learn when and how to use those pronouns.”

Pirvulescu is the principal investigator for a recently awarded significant Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant, and will be working with a team that includes Ana Pérez-Leroux and Yves Roberge from the St. George campus, Johanne Paradis from the University of Alberta, and Philippe Prévost from the Université François-Rabelais in Tours, France. Members of this team worked together in the past but their previous project focused solely on first-language acquisition, which is acquired from birth, whereas this initiative deals more with a second language that is learned from approximately the age of three.

One of the aims of the research is to determine whether children’s language learning is similar to first-language acquisition, bilingual-language acquisition (when a person learns two different languages simultaneously), or whether it is more like adult second-language acquisition. They are also interested in examining the consequences of learning a second language at three years old versus four years old, and beyond. Two of the colleagues on Pirvulescu’s team have expertise in second-language acquisition and will provide guidance. “Some of the issues are different from the ones in first-language acquisition,” explains Pirvulescu. “We need to make sure that the experiments can be transferred to other ages, to other types of acquisition, and from language to language.”

The test subjects will be primarily comprised of English and Spanish three year olds learning French as a second language in Quebec in order to focus on preschoolers acquiring French in a French environment. The experiments include showing the children images and asking very simple questions based on the pictures (e.g. “Tell me what the girl did with the flower?”), and the best way to express a certain phrase (e.g. “The boy eat the apple” or “The boy is eating the apple”). There will also be a control group of adults who are learning a second language, and the investigators will examine the effect of age on language acquisition “not on the end result, but on the path of the acquisition,” says Pirvulescu. The research might also have implications for the current perception of early childhood language programs, and whether to introduce a second language as it typically is now in the fourth grade or whether it would be beneficial to initiate it sooner.  

Aside from the time Pirvulescu devotes to her research and with teaching language and linguistics courses at U of T, plus serving as a co-editor for Mosaic, a quarterly journal for language teachers, she still finds time to volunteer with – not surprisingly – children at the daycares and classrooms where she conducts her experiments. She is also usually in the presence of her own two young sons, and recently got involved with their school community’s “Footprint Garden,” which is an eco-garden in the shape of a foot. They learned about designing and preparing the soil, they helped plant the seeds, and their family will be responsible for watering the garden for two weeks in July. This activity has rekindled a passion for Pirvulescu, who admits she had not gardened in a few years. “I grew up in a garden. My grandparents were planting their own foods, and it just grew up with me,” says Pirvulescu. She is now upholding the tradition by working alongside her sons in their own backyard garden to maintain the flowers, vegetables and herbs they planted earlier this year.

Pirvulescu’s sons also worked with their mom previously when she tried some of her pilot language experiments with them. They were generous with the feedback, referring to the exercises as games and asking her if they could do more of them. “It’s a game, but it’s also challenging because you actually ask them to help you or to help a puppet,” says Pirvulescu, who explains that she employs puppets when children are too shy to answer her. When she goes into the classrooms, Pirvulescu works one-on-one with the children, and she finds word spreads quickly that the experiments are fun and interesting, because the children are often clamouring to be chosen to sit with her next and do the language tests. “This is the other thing that I really love, when you see on their face that they are eager to do it, and they are so happy,” she says.

Pirvulescu is as eager to work with the children as they are with her, and feels very fortunate to be doing this kind of research and to have found the human contact that makes her work all the more delightful. “For six years I have been immersed almost 100 percent in dealing with children – at home, at school, in my research, when I write my papers, when I read my papers,…when I cook,” she says with a laugh. But it is quite apparent that she wouldn’t have it any other way.

By Carla DeMarco