Junctions, transitions, and the road ahead: From linguistics to rehabilitation sciences


By Rena Helms-Park, PhD

This piece is a brief retrospective on how navigating my own way through the transitions of life and career (those variously fraught, challenging, disorienting, exciting, and hopeful times) has made me cognizant of the needs of my students at similar junctions in their lives. It is also a short essay about another transition: from linguistics to the rehabilitation sciences. Linguistics – the study of language and speech – can be applied in numerous rehabilitative contexts including but not limited to speech-language pathology (SLP), audiology, reading disorders, and other communication difficulties.

My journey begins

I wasn’t an early bloomer. I remind students of this whenever they assume that all competent and successful professionals set their sights on a goal and then achieve this goal with a ferocious tenacity of purpose, irrespective of impediments. In reality, it took me a rather long time to come into my own in my career – that is, to secure a tenure-stream position in psycholinguistics at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) with a specialization in language acquisition and bilingualism.

When I arrived in Toronto in 1980, there were plentiful signs that Canada was an idealistic liberal democracy with a fairly generous social welfare system. As a foreign student (the erstwhile term), I was not allowed to work for remuneration, but I had automatic healthcare. I also paid the same tuition as my Canadian counterparts. It was also an age when, even in urban centres, those born here were less familiar than they are now with “outsiders” attempting to fit in. Even more than is the case now, there were few supports for career women with young families. The encouraging “lift” I received from those who were supportive when I was a “newbie” Canadian has contributed to my desire to give back to the community.

This “giving back” is accomplished in part through my connection to my students. One avenue that came naturally to me was supporting students of linguistics and psycholinguistics at the UTSC in bridging the gap between their undergraduate specialization and the rehabilitation sciences. Many of the first-generation Canadian parents in the communities surrounding UTSC don’t necessarily associate linguistics and psycholinguistics with science, but are generally pleased to learn that their children can find careers in the sciences or healthcare.

Linguistics as a way into rehabilitation

There are numerous ways in which linguistics and psycholinguistics can prepare students for careers in the rehabilitation sciences. Courses in linguistics that centre on language structures include accounts of how sounds are produced, perceived, and characterized acoustically (“phonetics”); how sounds are affected by their phonetic neighbours (“phonology”); how words are structured and how word parts can change sound-wise at their boundaries (“morphology” and “morphophonology”); the principles and rules governing word order, word classes, and inflection in sentences (“morpho-syntax”); word-level and sentence-level meaning (“semantics”); and so on.

This training is valuable in describing, assessing, and treating disorders of speech, language, and literacy (e.g., aphasia, hearing impairment, and dyslexia). The same is true of many branches of linguistics: psycholinguistics, which posits models of unimpaired language processing that can characterize impaired comprehension and production (e.g., speech impediments, or various types of aphasia); neurolinguistics, which provides explanations for language-related disorders through brain imaging; and aspects of my area of research such as childhood first language and bilingual acquisition of language and literacy, which provide insights into language/literacy delay.

I was delighted when an opportunity arose to introduce three new courses into our UTSC Linguistics curriculum, all of which have proven helpful in the transition from linguistics to careers in rehabilitation: Structure of American Sign Language (ASL), Speech Physiology and Speech Disorders in Children and Adults, and Language Disorders in Children. The latter two are taught by faculty members in the SLP Department in Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Toronto.

There is a beauty in supporting students who aim to become clinicians or researchers in the rehabilitation sciences; the professionals who emerge have the potential to serve the community in more direct ways than linguists do. The UTSC linguistics and psycholinguistics students who are looking for rehabilitation careers volunteer in hospitals, clinics, retirement homes, and schools. The time they devote to volunteering is well beyond the requirements for admission to graduate programs. Many UTSC students are also bilingual in an official language and a minority language, which is an asset in rehabilitation contexts in a metropolis such as Toronto.

These students also engage in research projects outside their course work. I have supervised students on a range of research topics, such as processing of English and tonal languages (e.g., Mandarin) by children with cochlear implants (CI). A former student of mine is working on CI research in a world-renowned Toronto hospital. Other projects have focused on diverse topics: how ASL users learn to read in English and French, how signing is affected in late adulthood, lexical acquisition by children with Down syndrome, heterogeneous types of aphasia, Parkinson’s disease, and diagnostic tests for speech-language disorders in various languages.

The road ahead

Building on a project about childhood trilingualism (with Dr. Pirvulescu) funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, I expect to embark on a large-scale study on trilingualism and reading disorders this year (together with colleagues in SLP). This research will not only contribute to linguistic diversity in Canada, but also support young immigrants who need to be become literate in a non-primary language and who may face language-independent literacy problems. I have no doubt that UTSC linguistics and psycholinguistics students will once again be involved with this impactful study.

I feel most valuable as a mentor to students facing career decisions at a confusing junction in their lives. For example, when I support students in their decisions to take time off to shadow speech-language pathologists and other rehabilitation professionals, take extra courses, or join labs to upgrade their academic qualifications. The admission standards for programs in the rehabilitation sciences are especially high in Canada, and the prerequisites are complex.

When I was at similar crossroads early in my career, few faculty members looked like me or conducted themselves like me. I often dealt with the situation by “aiming low” and applying for jobs that would soon become unchallenging. I frequently recognize characteristics of my younger self in students approaching the end of their programs (often coincident with leaving their parental homes). I feel gratified to be there for them when they can’t recognize their true potential.

My long and winding career journey has made me privy to the anxieties that come with finding one’s own path in a complex environment. My greatest personal satisfaction comes from supporting students on their journeys and reassuring them that, while the road from linguistics to rehabilitation sciences is not without twists and turns, it is one that can lead to a wonderfully fulfilling career in physical and psychological rehabilitation.