As an applied linguist with an interest in language education, Peter De Costa studies how policy decisions impact language learning and teaching and is drawn to the identity, ideological, and emotional consequences of these decisions.
“Over the last few years, because of political developments within the United States and beyond, we have been reminded that what goes on in the classroom cannot be decoupled from events in society,” said De Costa, an Associate Professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Linguistics, Languages, and Cultures (LiLaC) “Think about the fierce debate that has arisen over Critical Race Theory in this country, for example. Administrators, teachers, and students have found themselves caught in a political crossfire. And even though the COVID-19 pandemic is a health-related issue, it too has become a political flashpoint. Do we send our children back to school and participate in in-person instruction? Do we mask and vaccinate them and their teachers?”
For his work, which includes an outstanding record of publications and grants as well as a comprehensive research agenda, particularly in relation to how learner identities influence the dynamics of second language acquisition, De Costa recently received the Second Language Research Special Interest Group (SIG) Mid-Career Award presented by the American Educational Research Association. The award recognizes outstanding research on significant issues in second language education that advances knowledge while also offering insights to improve teaching and learning.
“To have been granted this award by my peers, who I hold in high esteem, is an amazing and deeply humbling honor,” De Costa said. “I just hope that I will live up to the faith and promise that is attached to the award in the coming years.”
A Commitment to Social Justice
De Costa’s primary area of research focuses on identity-, ideology-, and emotion-related issues in applied linguistics. His work has looked at English medium of instruction (EMI) language policies and investigated how these policies have resulted in, and often stem from, inequitable social relations. He said he sees himself as an “accidental” methodologist in that he never deliberately sought to publish on this topic, but now discussions on the conduct of ethical research practices is a cornerstone of his research agenda.
The review committee for the Mid-Career award noted De Costa’s emphasis on ethics and antiracism and stated that his research is “critical, important, and of a significant impact on the field of language teaching and learning.”
“My research is informed by a commitment to social justice and that basically means giving individuals equal access to resources and opportunities for learning,” De Costa said. “Right now, multilingual students do not have that equitable access. That access is restricted by virtue of the fact that they may have a certain identity that’s not valued or ratified by others. And so their chance or opportunities for learning are diminished or curtailed.”
“My research is informed by a commitment to social justice and that basically means giving individuals equal access to resources and opportunities for learning. Right now, multilingual students do not have that equitable access.”Peter De Costa
These ideologies, De Costa points out, don’t just stem from within individuals. A lot of these ideologies are reinforced by things that occur at school or within the larger society.
“If we don’t get it right, in terms of teaching and learning, the downstream effects are tremendous and it will be felt for generations to come,” De Costa said. “So it’s very important to make sure that more equitable outcomes are achieved because if we allow this to happen the gap will only get larger, and I don’t think anyone wins in the long-term when there’s this huge education gap. That really is what’s at stake here – the future of not just individuals but the future of society at large.”
De Costa’s colleagues who nominated him for this award, underscored several of his important contributions to the field, including the impact of his work addressing educational inequities.
“His sensitivities for different contexts and different social groups, of learners, teachers, professionals and policymakers, are a distinctive feature of his work,” said Li Wei, Director and Dean of the IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Social Research, in his nomination letter.
Preparing the Next Generation of Scholars
De Costa also was praised by colleagues for his leadership roles and the work he does with graduate students, particularly the apprenticeship of new scholars and ongoing engagement of scholars of color.
“He is very purposeful in supporting new scholars, like myself, to pursue our own lines of inquiry while offering his expertise and extensive network to support our own work,” said Christina Ponzio, who De Costa mentored as a doctoral student in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education program, in her nomination letter.
“He is very purposeful in supporting new scholars, like myself, to pursue our own lines of inquiry while offering his expertise and extensive network to support our own work.”Christina Ponzio
This is De Costa’s third American Educational Research Association Award. In 2016, he won the Language and Social Processes SIG Emerging Scholar Award and, in 2012, he received the Second Language SIG Dissertation of the Year Award.
However, De Costa says his proudest achievements have been working with and being part of the graduation of his students. His first Ph.D. student graduated in 2015, and since then, three more doctoral advisees have completed their doctoral degrees under his supervision and six more are in the pipeline and working towards their graduation. He also has served on numerous other doctoral dissertation committees.
“I firmly believe in preparing the next generation of applied linguists,” De Costa said. “This group also includes the undergraduate students that I have taught.”
The Road to MSU
De Costa began his career as a high school English teacher in Singapore where he worked with local Singaporean and Asian immigrant students whose first language was not English. Curious about why some students were more successful in acquiring English than others, he was drawn to the field through this classroom experience and his research interests originated from these pedagogical concerns.
While holding a full-time job at a Singapore high school, De Costa enrolled in the graduate program in Applied Linguistics at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Shortly after completing his MA coursework and before starting his master’s thesis, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Harvard Graduate School of Education where he completed an M.Ed. in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy.
“His sensitivities for different contexts and different social groups, of learners, teachers, professionals and policymakers, are a distinctive feature of his work.”Li Wei
Upon his return to Singapore, De Costa’s thesis took a different turn in that his second language-oriented work assumed a strong language policy flavor. Since then, and throughout his doctoral career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has continued to seek ways in which to marry his interests in second language acquisition and language policy and has written about the need to examine the intersection between the two because of how language learning and teaching are both shaped by broader social processes.
De Costa joined MSU in Fall 2013 and besides his role as Associate Professor, he also serves as Director of the Master’s in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) program and teaches courses in that program and teaches courses in the Second Language Studies doctoral program. He is the Director of the new Language Policy and Practice Lab, which he started last fall. De Costa also has a joint appointment with the Department of Teacher Education (TE) in MSU’s College of Education.
Among his other leadership roles, De Costa serves as Co-Editor of TESOL Quarterly, which is the flagship journal of TESOL International, the premier organization for TESOL professionals. He also is the First Vice President of the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL), which is the leading professional organization for applied linguists.
A Look to the Future
De Costa will receive the SIG Mid-Career Award at the 2022 AERA Conference in San Diego, California, on April 25. He also will deliver a speech about his work.
An acknowledgment of a successful and influential career, the SIG Mid-Career Award also is a promise of great things to come. It represents the respect and recognition of one’s peers and indicates the recipient has made a lasting impact in the field of second language research.
“It is my wish to elevate the programs on which I teach so that these programs as well as the departments and colleges to which they belong also grow in national and international standing.”Peter De Costa
As De Costa looks ahead to the future, he says his long-term goal is to play a key role in cementing MSU’s reputation as an institution of excellence.
“In addition, and working collaboratively with my amazing colleagues both in LiLaC and TE, it is my wish to elevate the programs on which I teach so that these programs as well as the departments and colleges to which they belong also grow in national and international standing,” De Costa said. “MSU has played a pivotal role in ensuring my academic success. I am grateful that a Research 1 (R1) university like MSU continues to be deeply committed to recognizing my research achievements. I am proud to be a Spartan.”