Katherine Rehner

Language Studies Professor Katherine RehnerKatherine Rehner has always had a bit of an unconventional approach, even as a child when she discovered that her natural affinity for language provided the perfect sortie for her occasional behavioural transgressions.

The Associate Professor in the Department of Language Studies recounts a time when at about the age of 5 her mother told her she did not want her playing in a certain friend’s house. “Okay, she didn’t say ‘at,’ she said ‘in’ her house. And I remember being fascinated by the fact that she said ‘in,’ if she meant ‘at,’” says Rehner, who was looking for a loophole in order to subvert her mother’s instructions and play on the friend’s front lawn. “I have always been interested in why people say things the way they do, and what makes them chose to say them that way.”

Sometime later in high school, Rehner was also struck by dialectal discrepancies while studying Core French. “I can remember being extremely frustrated, thinking, ‘why are we learning to say things the way the textbooks tell us, if when I go on my French exchanges I find it’s completely different French?’” says Rehner. True to her tenacious and inquisitive nature, when she would return from these exchanges, she would gently challenge her teachers when they cautioned her against her usage of the informal French phrases she had picked up, arguing that that is the way the native speakers talk.

Although it took some time before Rehner identified her trajectory in the area of sociolinguistics, which she defines as a way of “looking at how language is actually used in society,” once she made the discovery of this field while doing her master’s degree, her lifelong passion for the meaning and use of language and the way in which it diverges from the prescribed structures suddenly took a more defined shape. The graduate work in bilingual education she began at the master’s level at York University and continued at the doctoral level at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the U of T has led to a focused research path of studying the sociolinguistics of French in Ontario.

Ever the industrious researcher, Rehner and research collaborators, Raymond Mougeon, Terry Nadasdi, and Françoise Mougeon currently have three separate projects on the go. The first project is two-fold: one portion looks at a population in Ontario where French is a first language with the participants living in a predominantly Francophone environment; and by way of contrast, the other part of the project considers people whose first language is French, yet they live in areas of Ontario where French is a minority language.

The other two projects consider students learning French as a second language in Ontario, with one focusing on immersion students in high school while the other looks at immersion and Core French graduates studying French at the university level. All three of these projects are documenting speakers’ sociolinguistic competence.

A fourth, separate project that Rehner has undertaken individually, funded by SSHRC and the UTM Dean’s Office, also focuses on university-level students learning French as a second language. But true to form, Rehner has diverged from the pack when it comes to her research approach. While the other three projects, and most of the sociolinguistics studies that other researchers have conducted previously, have focused exclusively on performance data to draw conclusions about sociolinguistic competence, this investigation centers squarely on the competence itself.

Participants in the study complete a written survey questionnaire in English, which measures their sociolinguistic competence in French, and then they are interviewed (also in English so that they fully understand all of the questions) to further expand on what they know about sociolinguistics in French. A number of the study’s participants are also interviewed in French to measure their sociolinguistic performance, which will allow Rehner to ascertain whether there is a distinction between the sociolinguistic competence and performance of university learners of French. “What we want to know is, by tapping performance are you getting at the competence, or is there more under the surface that they cannot yet perform,” questions Rehner.  

The potential impact of Rehner’s research is far reaching. Along with the possibility of changing the way language is taught in schools, which has already, to an extent, been affected in that the value of both formal and informal language is now recognized, there is also the potential to encourage teachers to put emphasis on helping students develop both what they know and how they enact that knowledge.

Teachers' training is an important underlying consideration in Rehner's work; her research looks at the sociolinguistic content of teachers’ in-class speech, which is primarily (hyper-) formal in high school French-immersion classrooms, and the teaching materials, such as textbooks, that are used in these classes. “How can we train teachers to know how to deliver the information?” questions Rehner. “How can we then integrate the teachers’ desire with the curriculum mandate into pedagogical materials [e.g., textbooks] that reflect the sociolinguistic dimension?” she ponders.

Beyond changes to the curriculum, Rehner feels the broader influence of her work is reflected in changes within the field of sociolinguistics itself. Her research has helped to recognize two types of second-language sociolinguistic variability. There is a Type 1, which takes into account right vs. wrong when it comes to variable second-language production; Rehner gives the example of a second-language learner saying “a apple,” instead of “an apple.” While Type 2 variability focuses more on how second-language learners demonstrate formality and informality, and how they not only get their point across, but also how their personality, intentions and identity get reflected when trying to express themselves in that second language.

Not surprisingly, some of the activities Rehner chooses outside of her research are also unique. Although she spends most of her time with her family, which includes two young children who are both lovers of language, art and music, in her spare time Rehner keeps active with dance classes, and even archery whenever she gets the chance. She was an Ontario archery champion in high school, placing first in team shooting and third in individual shooting. “With archery, if you are patient and steady, honestly, I think anybody can do it,” says Rehner. “If you stand there and just hold your arm really still and let go at just the right moment, the arrow goes where it's supposed to go – well, it usually does for me,” she says with a laugh. The true skill, though, must rest within the determination of the archer.

By Carla DeMarco