Making sense of language
An Interview with Professor Liu Mei-Chun, Head of Department of Linguistics and Translation

Professor LIU Mei-chun, Head of the Department of Linguistics and Translation (LT)

Professor LIU Mei-chun, Head of the Department of Linguistics and Translation (LT)

People often hold firm beliefs about their knowledge, yet rarely question some "fixed concepts" underlying them. Presumably, "What is language?" is one of those questions that most people have never thought about. We may have memorised many grammatical rules while learning a language, but still cannot use them to communicate with others freely. Perhaps we lack not only the courage to question our knowledge but also the curiosity to ask questions about life itself.

Professor LIU Mei-chun, Head of the Department of Linguistics and Translation (LT), has taught in Taiwan for nearly 20 years. She is an accomplished researcher and educator. Talking about her experiences of schooling in Taiwan and the US, and about the subsequent Open Course Ware (OCW) that took the internet by storm, she insisted on asking "why" to start a question. Her "why" questions are not only put to students but also to herself. Describing herself as "full of curiosity", Professor Liu said she believed that "all kinds of learning stem from a question". Questions trigger thinking, and the answer-searching process makes a significant part of life.

So what exactly is language? "It's what we are using right now," Professor Liu answered, referring to the interview. "Language is ubiquitous in life." Throughout her academic career, Professor Liu has always been keen on finding out "how language works to communicate and express". For that reason, she believes that if one wants to explore "what language is" and "what language has in itself", the exploration must start from people's everyday lives. To her, explaining principles in language is like doing so in the science of physics – people will be able to make sense of language only when they can visualise a bridge built, as it were, to link linguistic principles with things in their everyday lives.

Languages of today, Professor Liu believes, seem to display four characters – they are free, lively, open, and flexible. While some argue that the study of linguistics is on the decline, Professor Liu holds just the opposite view. She believes that, as global links are getting ever closer, languages are interacting ever faster and more frequently – illustrating their function as an essential vehicle for life and culture. Indeed, languages are changing day by day. What linguists should do is "not to tell people how to use languages, but to observe, describe, and analyse them". The ever-changing linguistic phenomena are what linguists are curious about.

According to the recently released QS World University Rankings, City University of Hong Kong ranks 57th, while its Linguistics discipline in placed in 29th in the world – the highest amongst all the academic disciplines of CityU. In addition, with a fine academic record, the translation stream of LT has distinguished itself with excellent teaching, drawing large crowds of new students each year. Yet, it would be challenging for the department to maintain and surpass its current performance, Professor Liu admitted.

Thanks to the dedication of the pioneers, teaching and research at the Department now cover almost all the branches of linguistics, with great accomplishments scored especially in such fields as theoretical linguistics, applied linguistics, and computational linguistics.

Yet, just as languages must keep growing with its "dynamics", LT also needs fresh input of vitality. For that purpose, the top priority for Professor Liu is to map out the future of research for the department. Given the two main streams of LT, namely linguistics and translation, Professor Liu would further divide the discipline of linguistics into General Linguistics, Empirical and Corpus Linguistics, and Pedagogical Linguistics.

"Having defined the future development for the department and identified our forte, we can work with even more partners," said Professor Liu. Even with a solid foundation, LT must keep on growing – like a human being – not only by upgrading its research and teaching, but also expanding interactions with outside partners. For development's sake, the research in linguistics must link with other disciplines, because a cart built behind closed doors wouldn't go far or well on the road. Professor Liu believes the department has to open up, saying, "Nowadays, academic research is all about linking with even more specialised fields; that's how the innovations of this century all started."

The Department of Linguistics and Translation is currently planning a master lecture series. Scholars will be invited from overseas and Taiwan to Hong Kong, to share what they have achieved in research and studies in linguistics, translation, and related fields. For example, renowned cognitive scientists Professor Ovid J. L. Tzeng and his wife Professor Hung Lan Daisy have paid a visit to the Department and gave a public lecture on the latest developments in brain science and empirical linguistics.

Professor Liu Mei-chun sees her new job at LT as an amazing journey in her life. She will make it her mission to boost the growth of all its academic streams in an open and balanced manner, thus revitalising the Department as a whole.

Research Interests

  • Functional Syntax; Lexical Semantics
  • Corpus Linguistics; Cognitive Linguistics
  • Contrastive Analysis of English and Chinese

Research Grants

  • Construction of the Mandarin VerbNet: Spatial Configuration Verbs (103-2410-H-009-022-MY3) (2014-17)
  • Construction of the Mandarin VerbNet: Semantic Frames of Motion Verbs (NSC101-2410-H-009-038-MY2) (2012-14)
  • Cross-categorial Interaction: Verbs of Judgment and Social Interaction (2010-12)
  • Construction of the Mandarin VerbNet: Judgment Verbs (NSC 98-2410-H-009-036) (2009-10)
  • Interface Studies: Linguistic Theories and Applications. Sub-project of the "Aiming for World-Top University Project" (MOE 95W812) (2006-07)

Honours and Awards

  • NCTU Outstanding Teaching Award (2015)
  • NCTU Excellent Teaching Award (2014)
  • NCTU Excellent Academic Book Publication Award (2013)
  • NCTU Excellent Academic Journal Publication Award (2013)
  • NCTU Research Award (2012–14)
  • Advisor of LST Thesis Award, Linguistics Society of Taiwan (2011, 2006–08)
  • NCTU Outstanding Teaching Award (2010)
  • Special Contribution to Hsinchu City English Education (2000)

Professional Highlights

  • Author of two best-selling books: Making Sense of English Grammar (2013) and Making Sense of English Writing (2014)
  • Instructor of the Top 1 NCTU OCW YouTube class – "The Communicative Functions of English Grammar" (2013–15)
  • Visiting Scholar at Stanford University (2011–12)
  • Library Director, National Chiao-Tung University, Taiwan (2007-08)
  • Head, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, National Chiao-Tung University, Taiwan (2003–06)
  • Member of IACL Excom, LST Committee, and CLSW Steering Committee