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Student story

Ksenia Gnevsheva

20 July 2023

'"Understanding how our accents work is very important in a globalised world..."


PhD in Linguistics

Linguistics Lecturer, Australian National University

Originally from Russia, Ksenia spent a year in the workforce after completing her Arts undergraduate degree before realising that her passion lies with academia and research.

"That year away from studying showed me that academia is something that I really enjoy. I like the learning, enquiry and growth that it involves," she says.

As part of her interest in languages, Ksenia was keen to add an international experience to her studies and received her master’s in English as a Second Language (ESL) in Arizona, USA. When turning towards PhD studies, Ksenia looked for another global adventure and decided to travel down to study Linguistics at UC.

"New Zealand sounded like a good choice because my husband could get a work visa while I’m here," she says. "One of my advisors back in the US recommended UC and mentioned that there’s a scholarship that international students can apply for."

PhD study at UC turned out to be a perfect choice for her.

"I liked the balance between the quality of education and the size of the university. It’s smaller compared to my previous experiences, but it means that the department feels tighter. There’s no clear-cut division between postgraduate students and post-docs or faculty. I loved it that I could just knock on anyone’s office door at any time."

Ksenia’s research investigated variations in accents for people that speak English as a second language. Her study involved recording international UC students to see how their accents vary depending on the situation in which they’re speaking and getting other students to listen to the recordings to try and guess where they are from.

"We all have a unique way of speaking and we expect native English speakers' accents to betray where they are from. But in second language speakers, a 'foreign' accent is sometimes regarded as something that they should get rid of. We might like to think we’ve moved on from overt racial or ethnic discrimination, but linguistic discrimination rules in the twenty first century.

"There are two things that I addressed in my research. First, I showed that accents are an integral part of one’s identity. The second part of my project shows that the Native Speaker is a social construct, and the same person might or might not be regarded as a native speaker in different situations.

"Understanding how our accents work is very important: in the globalised world with so many international companies, labourers, and tourists, people from different language backgrounds come in contact on a daily basis, and we want this contact to be pleasant and efficient."

Along with her UC International Doctoral Scholarship, Ksenia also won the university-wide Thesis in 3 competition in 2013, in which PhD students are challenged to speak about their research in only three minutes.

While research certainly kept her busy, Ksenia also made it a priority to explore New Zealand and UC’s community.

"I love the outdoors, and New Zealand can really cater to that: hiking, camping, biking, skiing, and skating. I’ve been involved with the Korean Students Association (I was learning Korean) and the Potluck (cooking) Club on campus."

Since graduating, Ksenia has worked for Christchurch start-up company Fluent Scientific Ltd developing a test of English proficiency for second language speakers, and is currently a lecturer in Linguistics for the Australian National University.

"I like my job very much, and I am happy to see how my research expertise and the things I learnt during my PhD find real-life applications," she says.

Overall, Ksenia thoroughly enjoyed her time at UC and in Christchurch.

"It’s been a great experience. New Zealand is very open-minded and welcoming to international students. I’ve also made friends with other international students from at least 20 other countries. It truly is an international experience."

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