Although Valerie Jepson had known from an early age that she desired to travel and to “explore the wonders of the world,” it was not until she was half-way through her Bachelor’s degree in Math that she was introduced to the Spanish-speaking world. Valerie had decided to serve a mission for her church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was assigned to the Spain Las Palmas Mission in the Canary Islands, with the expectation that she would learn Spanish. As her proficiency in Spanish began to emerge, her interest in the people and the culture also began to expand to include more than just tourist attractions. After completing her mission and returning to school, she immediately registered for four Spanish courses. The first Linguistics class that Valerie took was Spanish Phonology and Phonetics, in which the scientific explanation and formulaic descriptions of sound formation captured her interest, and neatly tied her math background to her newly formed language interests—and of course markedly improved her pronunciation!
Valerie’s dissertation investigates the language acquisition process of people who are learning Spanish, as she did, on a mission. Research suggests that most late second-language learners never acquire native-like pronunciation, even if they are able to mostly master the other aspects of language. But Valerie proposes that mission work affords participants opportunities to use a second language to accomplish their duties in an intensive immersion environment, coupled with high motivation, despite a relative lack of formal language training. As such, this setting offers a unique glimpse into how effective pronunciation acquisition might happen. While Valerie’s main focus is pronunciation, she also looks at other factors, such as attitudes and motivation, in an attempt to correlate several variables with successful language acquisition. Valerie successfully defended her dissertation on December 2nd, and is currently applying for academic jobs for the coming year.
Given her personal and professional experiences with missions, with UF’s Dominican Republic Service Learning program and with the Cuernavaca Mexico Accelerated Spanish program, Valerie is an ardent advocate of study abroad and accelerated learning. The growth that students can experience in a short amount of time when they are focused exclusively on a language never ceases to amaze her.