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Interview with ConCALL co-organizer Dr. Öner Özçelik

This weekend, the Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region (CeLCAR) will be hosting the Second Conference on Central Asian Languages and Linguistics (ConCALL-2) at Indiana University.  The main goal of ConCALL is to bring researchers focusing on how Central Asian languages are represented formally, as well as acquired by second/foreign language learners.  Thus, research into both formal linguistics and language acquisition is represented. This year’s theme is “Continuing the Journey: Strengthening the Central Asian Language Community”.  The IAUNRC, who is co-organizer of the conference, sat down this week with Dr. Öner Özçelik, the residing director of the Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region (CeLCAR) and founder of the conference, to learn a little more about this bi-annual event.


What is the significance of this year’s theme “Continuing the Journey: Strengthening the Central Asian Language Community”?


This year’s theme is very similar to the previous themes, which are to basically strengthen the communities of Central Asian languages, Linguistics, and Second Language educators. There is a big need for these communities to get together because – before this conference was first organized two years ago – there wasn’t a single conference that focused exclusively on Central Asian languages.  You will see conferences on Eastern Asian languages and African languages, or even Austronesian languages, but nothing exclusively on Central Asian languages, so I think it is important for experts in these fields to come together and disseminate and share their research.


Why did you originally establish this conference in Spring 2014?


The idea was first mentioned in a conversation I had with Dr. Chris Atwood, the previous chair of CEUS. One day, we were walking to a meeting and he mentioned that, with the grants available at IU, perhaps I could apply to organize a conference. I am really thankful to him for giving me the idea that this conference was doable; that it was not impossible. The first ConCALL, which we funded through grants from IU (e.g. Ostrom and CAHI), was a big success! We had people from all over the world and from many leading universities in the US attend, and we also had the luxury of having a very low acceptance rate, given the number and quality of abstract submissions. After we saw this, we decided to continue hosting it and also make it more permanent, so we included the conference in our external grant application to the US Department of Education (Title VI funds). As our application was successful, we have the opportunity to continue to host it. In addition, this was a natural choice for us to do because there are currently 16 national language centers in the US including CeLCAR, and - prior to this - CeLCAR was, I believe, the only one that didn’t have a conference or workshop associated with it; therefore, we decided two years ago that is was finally time for us to have a conference.


Indiana University is also the ideal place for a conference like this because when it comes to languages, IU really offers the widest array of languages in general and is one of the only institutions that offers a variety of Central Asian languages. You can take, for example, three years of Uzbek or three years of Mongolian here, which is extremely difficult to do in other places.


In addition to CEUS and its strengths and leadership role in Central Asian languages, we also have a very strong Linguistics department and an internationally renowned Department of Second Language Studies.  The combination of these departments and CeLCAR – which prepares materials focused on Central Asian languages – places us in a unique position to organize such a conference. There are already a lot of people here who are interested in, for example, Turkish and Uzbek, or Tajiki and Pashto, or interested in topics such as vowel harmony, which occurs in most Altaic languages including the Turkic and Mongolic languages spoken in Central Asia.


Who should attend this conference and why?


Anyone who is interested in linguistics, and not just Central Asian linguistics but linguistics in general. Central Asian languages are not really well researched in linguistic literature, so almost every time you look at a Central Asian language you can find a new idea – something that challenges current linguistic theory or improves it further; therefore, anyone who is interested in linguistics, in my opinion, will find this conference interesting.


When we held the first ConCALL conference, we had many general linguists who basically came to learn more about the structures of these languages, how research on these languages could inform linguistic theory and how acquisition proceeds in these languages. For example, how children learn these languages, and how a second language learner acquires, for example, vowel harmony in Uyghur versus Kazakh. In addition, our plenary speakers are leading experts not just in Central Asian linguistics but also in fields like general linguistics and second language acquisition.  One of the plenary speakers this year is, for example, Silvina Montrul, who is the editor of Second Language Research, one of the leading journals in the entire field of second language acquisition. There are many people at IU from various departments who are interested in her research. And again we have leading people in Turkic, Iranian and Mongolic languages invited as plenary speakers, but their research and its significance is far beyond these language families.


This conference would, of course, also be interesting for someone interested specifically in the languages of the area, even if they don’t have much background in linguistics. For example, one thing I noticed last year was that there was a lot of communication between speakers of similar languages who were comparing data. For example, after a Uyghur presentation, all of the Turkish people in the audience were like “Oh wow, this is interesting!” because they noticed the similarities and differences between the two languages. You naturally get ideas like this even if you don’t know much about linguistic theory.


This is also a great opportunity for networking. I noticed in the last conference that during coffee breaks, speakers from different language groups came together and talked with each other regarding research ideas. One of my main specializations is prosody, which includes stress and intonation, and so during a coffee break, while talking with someone who does prosody in Uyghur, I got some ideas on how I could improve a previous proposal of mine which was originally based on languages like Turkish, French and English for children by using data from Uyghur. I also met our current Turkmen materials developer through this conference, and it is extremely difficult to find a language specialist who speaks English and also has easy access to Turkmenistan, which is necessary for requiring authentic materials.  Thanks to this conference, I met the person who has been helping with our Turkmen materials.


 There are also going to be several nice events.  There will be a reception on Friday evening and on Saturday, and there is going to be a cultural event that includes entertainment.  There will be a concert which will have music from both Turkic and Iranian speaking regions of Central Asia, and there will be regional dancers from the area performing. So the conference would also be of interest to those who are interested in the cultures of the area.


Are there any other speakers or presentations this year that you think are exceptionally unique?


I would say all of them are. The thing is, since this a very general conference in the sense that we are trying to represent all major language families spoken in, or associated with, Central Asia, we try to put equal emphasis on each plenary speaker. As I mentioned before, Silvina Montrul will be one of our plenary speakers. She has had some past research on the acquisition of Turkish, but also the acquisition of less commonly taught languages in general, including Farsi and Romanian. She will be talking about these topics which will be relevant for anyone interested in any less commonly taught language. For Turkic languages we have Baris Kabak, who is one of the leading names in Turkish phonology and, in fact, the field of phonology in general; for Iranian languages we have Arsalan Kahnemuyipour, who has done some significant work on the syntax of Persian and the syntax-prosody interface of various Central Asian languages, and this work is crucial for linguistic theory in general. And for Mongolic languages, we have our own György Kara, who is very well-known and a leading scholar in Mongolic languages and dialects in addition to the languages of Central Asia in general. His talk will be appealing to both syntacticians, phonologists and morphologists, as he will be presenting data from Mongolic languages associated with not just one, but various, subfields of linguistics, as well as talking about how this data could help build or improve theories. We also have Marcel Erdal, a linguist who focuses on general Turkic languages and other languages of Central Asia. He is a little bit different from the others in that his focus is mostly on historical linguistics and how these languages came to be different from each other. His talk would be especially interesting for the general public interested in these languages and not just for people who do theoretical linguistics.  Finally, we will also have 19 oral presentations, in addition to several posters, representing a wide array of languages and linguistic subfields, including Tibetan, Uyghur, Kazakh, Uzbek, Azerbaijani, Dari and Pashto, and of course, Turkish, Persian and Mongolian, among many others.


How many people do you hope will attend?


We expect at least around 70 people to attend the majority of the lectures, but often there are much more for the plenary speakers. Last time, even though we had a really big hall, it was completely full for several of our speakers, especially the plenaries. We had many more people than we expected. The event is free to IU students and professors.


There are many people who come from all over the world to both present and attend this conference. How do you recruit conference participants?


We post announcements through various linguistic websites, especially The Linguist List, which is an online forum that most linguists, especially in the Western World, regularly check.  Interestingly enough, The Linguist List is also hosted by IU, which again is a testament to the university’s reputation for being a prime institution for language and linguistics.  Of course, we also send our call for papers to various institutions in the US and abroad.


Anything else?


I would just like to emphasize that if you’re interested in Central Asia, you should drop by, even if you don’t have a linguistics background because it is going to be a lot of fun. Yes, there will be mostly talks about linguistic theory, but even if you are simply interested in the culture of the area or just want to practice your language skills, this will be the chance for you to meet natives from places like Kazakhstan or Xin Jiang.

For more information about the event, visit the conference website: