Manuel Alcántara-Plá has a European PhD on Natural Language Processing by the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM).
Since 2008, he has been working as a professor in the Linguistic, Modern Languages, Logic and Philosophy of Science, Theory of Literature and Compared Literatures Departments of the UAM. He is a member of the investigation group Wor(l)ds Lab.
He is also a member of the management board of the Asociación de Estudios sobre Discurso y Sociedad (EDISO), an association regarding the study of speeches and societies, and a member of the Sociedad Española de Lingüística (SEL, Spanish Society of Linguistics) and of the Special Interest Group on Computational Semantics (SIGSEM, of the Association for Computational Linguistics).
He has also been co-editor of the international magazine CHIMERA: Revista de Corpus de Lenguas Romances y Estudios Lingüísticos since 2014 and he is the creator of the blog Inicios.es.
You can read the Spanish version of Manuel’s interview right here.
When did you start to become interested in linguistics? What motivated you to embark on a career in this field?
I wasn’t immediately interested in linguistics. On the contrary. As a child I was more passionate about literature and the arts. Studying poems and novels helped me appreciate the strength behind every word, which were almost always the same words I heard in the street or at home. And so I went from being drawn to literature to becoming passionate about everyday language.
In Spain, what does linguistic/terminological research involve on a day-to-day basis? Is it very different from linguistic/terminological research in other countries?
I think it is becoming harder and harder to talk about schools of science in geographical terms, whether they deal with linguistics or another discipline. Communication is so intense both within the EU and outside that this type of distinction seems artificial to me. It wouldn’t even be easy to compare a western school with an eastern one, as these are also closely interconnected.
For students who are currently thinking of going into linguistics or terminology, what advice would you give them?
Everyone has to follow their own path, but I think it would be a good idea to concentrate on the classics, which are all too often forgotten, and for students to see linguistics without external constraints. As regards linguistics, names which seem very different, like Hjemslev, Sapir or Lyons teach us the importance of being creative and of not laying down artificial borders when studying languages.
As regards terminology, I also have the impression that people sometimes have very narrow preconceived ideas, especially as regards the possible applications of linguistic knowledge. In a world in which communication has become global and incredibly complex, linguistic experts are important for many domains.
I suppose that you are aware of IATE. Has it been useful for you in your research? Do you use IATE as a tool in your classes at university?
I used it more when I was teaching than for research (in the Autonomous University of Madrid we teach a degree in modern languages and another in translating and interpreting), but I’m not ruling out using it for research in the future.
“In a world in which communication has become global and incredibly complex, linguistic experts are important for many domains”
You have been writing a blog, Inicios, on languages and communication since 2006. What prompted you to create it? How do you think it helps students and linguists or terminologists?
In 2006 the social networks that we have today didn’t exist and blogs were the digital way of creating networks and sharing information, even though anything digital was in the minority back then. Now, almost 15 years later, I use it as a platform to share my queries and findings on topics I am researching. In recent years I have used it more to look into the relationship between languages and technologies, and digital speech with a political or social slant. As these are topics which I am passionate about, I hope that my respect for words and how carefully I look into them comes across. From the very beginning, the name inicios responded to the idea of a place which sparked curiosity on certain subjects which I don’t think were talked about much on the internet.
You have embarked on various linguistic projects relating to terminology and context in political speeches. Why are you interested in this area of study?
I must comment both in a very theoretical way and in a very practical way in order to give a proper response. As for the theory, understanding digital political discourse means understanding how language works at every level, from its basic grammatical form to the most pragmatic form, and the relationship between the two. We can then carry out a more complete study from a linguistic point of view. This also includes some aspects which have traditionally been less important, but which interest me, such as the study of emotions or silence.
As for the practice, I think we need to shed some light from our research on how political communication operates today. This is crucial for democracy and there is a wealth of analysis from other areas. It would be irresponsible of our profession if we did not share our knowledge and skills.
You have also been interested in studying hate speech and the counter narratives that it can lead to. What motivated you to do this? Do you feel that this area of research is more important now than it was a decade ago?
My response is in the same vein as what I said earlier. I believe that there should have always been a greater focus on hate speech, on how it is created, on how it is spread and on how it can be countered. However, this is now gaining more prominence as it is being analysed on social networks. I believe that it is never too late to look into a topic such as this. Language has always been used to conjure up images of enemies in the minds of speakers from one community. It is something from which we should protect ourselves, but also something from which we can learn a lot from a linguistic point of view, like why some messages work and others don’t, the emotional significance of speech or how the meaning behind each word is formed when it is used in certain contexts.
Written by María Gálvez Durán
Maria obtained Translation and Interpretation Bachelor’s degree in Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Maria is currently studying the Master’s degree in Conference Interpreting in the college Universidad Pontificia Comillas, in Madrid, in order to improve her interpreting skills (2018-2020). The native language of Maria is Spanish and her working languages for interpreting are the following: ES>EN, EN>ES, FR>ES. In addition, she worked as a volunteer interpreter in several conferences. Now, Maria is happy to be a trainee in the Spanish Translation Unit of the European Parliament.