Linguistics Department

On Guard, Ready, Go: Grace Neveu Stands Poised for Her Next Move

Tue, January 1, 2019
On Guard, Ready, Go: Grace Neveu Stands Poised for Her Next Move

Grace Neveu, a Ph.D. candidate in the UT Department of Linguistics, discusses what brought her to UT, the unexpected places her graduate program has taken her, and what waits for her after graduation.

When Grace Neveu enters the piste and hears those three familiar words - en-garde, pret, allez – she knows what to expect. A seasoned fencer who has taken home several first place medals at the Collegiate Fencing National Championships, Neveu is fluent in the language of the sport, the vocabulary of feint, parry, and riposte. As Neveu nears the end of her doctoral program at UT, she credits fencing with giving her something outside her studies to look forward to, as well as being a great source of exercise and a valuable social outlet during her time in the program. Plus, knowing that she had practice in the afternoon helped motivate her to get through her work.

Neveu says that having access to groups and activities like the fencing club is one of the benefits of joining a large university like UT, but what really brought her to the university was the opportunity for linguistics research. Neveu, who became interested in linguistics when she was a teenager, was quickly drawn to sign language linguistics. “In my classes in college,” Neveu says, “Sign languages would be mentioned but were never the focus. I always found myself thinking ‘I want to learn more about that’. I was especially fascinated by the emergence of new sign languages, which is a process that can only be studied in deaf populations.”

Once she decided to focus on the documentation of sign linguistics, Neveu knew that the UT Department of Linguistics was an obvious fit. “The department’s strengths in both sign language linguistics and fieldwork are what made UT my first choice for graduate school.” She joined the program in 2013 and was able to launch her research in the field that had drawn her in: the emergence of sign languages.

Neveu has done fieldwork at three different field sites during her time in graduate school: Nueva Vida and Totoya, two villages in the Amazon, and Iquitos, the major city in the Peruvian Amazon. “Nueva Vida and Totoya are Maijuna communities, which is an indigenous group in Peru,” Neveu explains. “Each village is home to one deaf man.” In the Maijuna villages, Neveu studies the sign system that has developed around the deaf individuals in those communities. In the Iquitos project, she studies the variety of Peruvian Sign Language that is developing in the city, with a focus on “how the social structures of the community and the interactions in the community influence and shape the development of language.”

Neveu says that the first time doing fieldwork and coordinating travel on her own was a big challenge. Here, too, she could appreciate the resources the department, and the university, had to offer. “Being in a department that specialized in documentation was a big benefit. There were so many resources when it came to writing up IRBs or preparing for fieldwork. There is definitely a learning curve when it comes to doing fieldwork the first time. I'm glad that I had the support and resources at UT to help me through the process.”

She also says there isn’t anything quite like the experience of doing fieldwork and living in remote areas like the Amazon. “Some of my favorite moments were spending time with people in the communities. Whenever I walked through the village, I always came back laden with food because everyone I talked to would give me some sort of food gift.” There were major challenges, too, like getting very sick and having to walk ten hours through the jungle. And then there were what she calls surreal moments, like the time she was walking through the jungle and her travel companion stopped to point out that they were surrounded by a troupe of monkeys.

Neveu notes that fieldwork requires some interesting skills, like setting up and using solar panels or cooking on a camping stove. “More abstractly,” she says, “I also learned about compromising or not panicking when it seems like things are going wrong. Something that would be a mild inconvenience here, like electronics failing, can be major a issue in the field. There were several instances where I was on my own and had to work through what, at that moment, felt like a disaster.”

Fortunately, none of those would-be disasters has derailed her work, and now Neveu is preparing to move on from graduate school with the experience and (sometimes unexpected) skills she gathered from her time in the field. She’s been able to use her work in the Maijuna communities as the backbone of her dissertation research. In her dissertation, Neveu describes the home sign systems used by those two deaf individuals in the Peruvian Amazon, a communication system that developed without influence from any other sign language such as American Sign Language or Peruvian Sign Language. She explains, “These types of systems develop without a language model and can, therefore, tell us about the types of biases that learners bring to the task of language acquisition and creation.”

In fencing, each match begins with a clear call to action: en-garde, pret, allez; or on guard, ready, go. With the foundation of training and research she’s received at UT, Grace Neveu stands poised to begin the next match, the next bout of experiences that wait for her both off the fencing piste and outside of graduate school. Neveu says that whatever comes next, she plans to continue her research in Iquitos and other areas of Peru.


Map of Grace Neveu's fieldwork sites:

Map of Grace Neveu's field sites

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