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Robert Englebretson pushes his comfort zone

Robert Englebretson, an associate professor of linguistics, has studied German, Indonesian and Braille. Courtesy Jeff Fitlow

By Shruti Patankar     11/7/23 11:02pm

Aunt or ah-nt, caramel or karr-mul, pecan or puh-kahn: These are debates that are essential to the American dinner table, dorm floor and lunch break conversations. Associate linguistics professor Robert Englebretson has built a career from these curiosities, seeking to understand what drives people to communicate the way that they do. 

Englebretson credits his initial interest in linguistics to his childhood, where he frequently moved states. His father was in the Air Force, and living on Air Force bases meant meeting people who spoke a variety of languages in an even greater variety of accents. 

“It always intrigued me … the way that different people speak English,” Englebretson said. “People talk differently. They use different words for the same idea, and when you pause and think about it, how cool is that, right?”

Englebretson’s passion for linguistics grew as he studied German in college, noting the similarities and differences between English and other languages in which he was interested.

“Linguistics is the scientific study of language, and variation is a part of that. There’s [approximately] 7,000 languages spoken on Earth, and there’s a lot of variation in the way that languages put words or sentences together,” Englebretson said. “When I started taking linguistics courses in college, that’s something I found fascinating: linguistic diversity.”

The diversity of languages is reflected in all the different fields linguistics encompasses, Englebretson said, including neuroscience, cognitive science, sociology and anthropology.

When pursuing his Master of Arts degree in linguistics at the University of California Santa Barbara, Englebretson studied Indonesian, a starkly different choice from learning German as an undergraduate. 

“If I was going to live somewhere and do fieldwork, I wanted to be somewhere I liked the food,” Englebretson said. “In all seriousness … I liked that there were so many linguistic differences from English. Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world by population, and not many Americans speak any Indonesian.” 

Englebretson is also blind and learned Braille at a young age. Now, he’s working on a project that explores how the preconceived notions that Braille teachers hold can affect the learning process of their students. 

“I started out as a scholar of colloquial Indonesian, and I really had no intention of adding research on Braille, [but] I’m currently interested in the cognitive, linguistic and perceptual underpinnings of Braille reading and writing,” Englebretson said. “It’s important to be open to new directions you might not have anticipated that lead to interesting, worthwhile ideas.”

Simon Fischer-Baum, an associate professor in Rice’s psychology department and one of Englebretson’s collaborators in Braille research, said Englebretson’s curiosity is matched in equal parts by compassion and thoughtfulness. 

“When I reflect back to some of our early conversations … I made incorrect assumptions about blindness, disability and braille … with the unearned confidence of a new professor. [Englebretson] did not dismiss me and he did not shame me, but he slowly worked with me, grounded in his own experience and his impressive knowledge of the literature, to shift my thinking,” Fischer-Baum said.

This trait is further shown by Englebretson’s admission that working with his students is always the best part of his day.

“I love teaching: interacting with students in class and helping people discover the beauty of grammar, the world’s languages and the diversity of languages,” Englebretson said. “I was department chair for five years, and there’s a lot of memos and administrative things to deal with. I did them … but I value the interaction with students and watching them explore the courses I teach.”

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