Research highlights

Lua Koenig interviews Fabienne Chetail

Fabienne Chetail is an assistant professor at the LCLD (Laboratoire Cognition Langage et Développement), and was officially named for a permanent position in the lab on the 1st of October. After 5 years as a post-doctoral researcher in the ULB, she had developed a firm interest in the lab and enjoyed the friendly atmosphere within the CRCN. She had both the colleagues and the resources she needed to develop new ideas and studies, and applied for the permanent position here, despite job proposals in other labs. She has teaching and administrative responsibilities but has the time to fully focus on her research.


What is your educational background?

I obtained a scientific baccalaureat in France and studied psychology at the University of Bordeaux, where I also did my PhD. Afterwards, I started a 3-year post-doc at the ULB and after realising how much I liked the lab after my first year, I applied for a second post-doc with the FNRS, which led me to begin another 3-year post-doc, two years into my first post-doc. During the second post-doc I spent a few months in Washington University in St Louis, and I continue to collaborate with the colleagues I had there.

Lua Koenig interviews Fabienne Chetail


When did you become interested in psychology and then for your current research topic?

In school I decided that I wanted to be a psychologist. In my first year studying psychology, I realised that I did not in fact want to become a clinical psychologist, but I continued my studies, more or less for lack of another plan. At that time I was working in a call centre, and although I hated the job, I considered stopping my studies to continue it full-time. I decided to do a Master anyway. My research project and thesis, in my first year of Master, was truly my first encounter with the world of research, and I found it absolutely fascinating. It made me want to do my second year of Master, and then a PhD. My first master thesis was already focused on language and word recognition, and more specifically on competition during word recognition. For example, I studied the effects of reading the word “loir” and “soir” or “voir” and the resulting interference provoked in the visual recognition of these words. It was a very fundamental and theoretical question, without any applications, but it is the idea of research that attracted me – the idea that things are not yet established, and that one works and explores to try and reach the best possible understanding.


So to some extent you discovered a love for research by chance?

Yes, completely by accident, and only just barely, too, because I was thinking of dropping out of university.


How would you describe your current research in a few sentences?

I started working on orthographic neighbourhood recognition in the course of my first dissertation and then shifted to the role of syllables in reading. I continued studying the same topic for 3 years during my PhD, in children and adults. I was very interested in the subject but my results were fairly inconsistent, so I wanted to explore other facets of reading and visual word recognition. However, upon my arrival to Brussels for my first post-doc, it was more strategic for me to continue with research I was familiar with. Again, I was faced with a lack of results, and this was not very exalting. By chance, I noticed in the results of a side project that subjects seemed to be influenced by the consonant and vowel letters when processing words. I decided to test the effect, and my results turned out to be very promising, so I continued with this subject for the next three years, mostly in collaboration with Alain Content. Now that I have a permanent position here, I plan to develop a new line of research that investigates the role of spelling regularities within written words. That is, some letters co-occur more often within words than others, and my claim is that this plays a fundamental role in reading. As this issue has not been thoroughly examined so far, I am going to explore it. A good point for this line of research is that it has ties with implicit learning, which is one of the main topics studied in the CRCN.


Would you say your research is driven principally by serendipity, or by theory?

I would say it is led mostly by theory, but when I shifted topics between the role of syllables and the impact of consonant-vowel structure, it was because of an unexpected result in a secondary study. I noticed it because I already had in mind a theory about consonant-vowel structure in letter strings, and I knew that this theory had never been tested. This allowed me to develop all the work that is now interpreted in light of these first hypotheses.

The purely exploratory strategy, of trying things and hoping for results in order to elaborate a theory, is something I rarely do. I do think, though, that in research there are certain times when, by chance or coincidence, you detect unexpected effects. So that’s what happened to me, but theory and practice are inseparable in research; it is always driven by a mix of both.


Are there implications of your future research?

This is clearly fundamental research, so the aim is not to have direct applications, and it never has been my goal. The aim is really to understand word recognition and the processes of reading at a theoretical level, with normal readers. The next step, which consists in using these theoretical models to develop practical advice about learning to read, is another field entirely. My work, as well as all the work done by psycholinguists who study visual processing of words, can be used by speech therapists or teachers, but these are two very separate fields.


Who are researchers that you respect, or who inspire you – and why?

I don’t specifically have names, but I am sensitive to researchers who are very bright and also likeable, and don’t take themselves too seriously. In general, I like to work with people who are both intelligent and friendly.


How would you define a “bright” researcher – because it seems to me that it requires many different capacities?

It’s true that it is complicated to define. I would say that a bright researcher is somebody who asks interesting questions, and who develops relevant study designs to answer them. I am sensitive to people who develop new procedures or paradigms to answer their questions: very often, it is easy to be influenced by a trend in a field of research and it is interesting when somebody comes up with something completely new and relevant. It is also refreshing when things are put into question entirely, and a new perspective is adopted. refreshing enjoy meeting people with very different, sometimes even opposing, views on my research topic; these are people I like to listen to. Even if sometimes people are so cramped onto their opinions that talking does nothing to further the debate, it is generally beneficial. For example, I met Alain Content for the first time at the oral defence of my PhD; one of the first things he said to me was that he didn’t believe in the syllable, just as I had handed in a whole dissertation on the topic, with a conclusion in favour of the psychological reality of syllables in reading. This was a really interesting encounter, because we both had different arguments to support our claims, and that’s how we were able to construct new ideas together.


Are there parts of your research that could be used to study pictogram writing systems like Chinese or Japanese?

My current research touches mostly on alphabetical languages like English, French and Italian, and the question is extremely relevant because this is precisely my plan: to extend my research on the role of spelling regularities in written words to different writing systems. The hypothesis is that spelling regularities don’t necessarily play the same role depending on a language’s spelling characteristics. In psycholinguistics the field has been centred on English, so it is time to open this research to many more languages like Chinese, Russian, Arabic or Vietnamese, which have very different spelling characteristics to be analysed. This is definitely a short-term aim.


Does this sort of research already exist with non-alphabetical languages?

Yes there are some labs that study this, but I think it is very much a developing field. There are more and more psycholinguistic labs that investigate the visual recognition of Chinese words for example. Are these the same processes as for alphabetical languages? Are the same neural circuits engaged in both language types? This comparison of alphabetical languages like English or German can be done with logographic or syllabic writing systems, as well as all the other alphabetical languages that have yet to be studied.


So are you planning on a collaboration of labs to begin this comparative study?

Yes this is an immediate aim. To study English I collaborated with a lab in the US, and with a lab in Italy when I studied Italian. I work a lot with Alain Content, who is currently in China on sabbatical to develop new collaborations. I also have contacts in Hong Kong.


How do you go about making professional contacts and creating collaborations?

It happens mostly at conferences, where some people directly talk to people they are interested in. In my experience, often it is when I do a presentation in front of an audience that I generate interest and people will come to talk to me. I think this is the case with a lot of people; you see others’ work or present your own and this creates a common ground for fruitful conversation.


One last, theoretical question: to what extent is creativity a part of scientific research?

Creativity is undeniably tied to research; I can’t imagine progress in science without it. Sometimes paradigm shifts are needed to advance, one has to accept the idea of changing tasks or hypotheses, and be able to create something more appropriate. For me research is an act of creation, all along the way, because I create new hypotheses, I think of new paradigms. Even on a practical level, I create the different tasks for the experiments: I will select words with specific characteristics and create sets of words for my tasks; I also write lines of code and thus create my own programs for testing. So creation is present at all levels of my research, both in the theory and the practical. This is one aspect of research that makes it so appealing to me.


Research highlight by Lua Koenig.