Introducing Professor Tess Fitzpatrick – Head of English Language and Applied Linguistics

Prof. Tess Fitzpatrick

February 2017 saw the arrival of our new Head of Department Professor Tess Fitzpatrick. We are very excited to have her lead our section. After settling in, I asked her if she would like to introduce herself to our students, prospective students, their families and general readers. Here’s what she had to say.


The opportunity to work (back) at Swansea University is an exciting one – I’ve watched the University grow over recent years not only in footprint and reputation, but also in the articulation of a strong commitment to dignity, equality, and community values.

Last summer the University decided to establish our Applied Linguistics and English Language Studies activity as a department in its own right (previously it was a unit within English Literature), and I feel privileged to have been selected to lead that department.

Tess as an undergraduate, 1985

My connection with Swansea goes back to February 1985, when I was interviewed as a prospective undergraduate in English Literature and Modern History. The sun shone, the interviewers awed me, and on St David’s Day that year I received the offer of a place, leading to three wonderful years of study in Swansea.

Immediately before and after my degree I worked in London, for the BBC and as a theatre agent, but crucially I also took a four-week CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults) course in 1988 at International House. I had planned for the CELTA to open doors for me to travel the world, and indeed I have worked on short contracts overseas on the strength of it, but it turned out that the most important doors it opened were to a career in academia, and to long-term residence in this beautiful part of Wales.


Fulton House, 1985

My route into academia was circuitous: my CELTA and a little teaching experience qualified me to teach EFL (English as a Foreign Language) back at Swansea University in a unit then led by Jim Milton, first on summer courses, then on courses supporting overseas students before and during their studies. I became an EFL teacher trainer, and started to manage a programme of commercial language courses in specialist English.

In order to develop my own professional profile I studied part-time for an MBA with the Open University, and then for the Cambridge Diploma in English Language Teaching to Adults.  The latter awakened an interest in theories of language learning and teaching, and happily coincided with Paul Meara’s arrival in Swansea to establish a PhD programme in Applied Linguistics.  Paul asked if I’d be interested in doing a PhD (it hadn’t occurred to me), and gave me Jean Aitchison’s Words in the Mind to read, which kicked off a fascination with psycholinguistic exploration of lexical acquisition and processing that continues to absorb me today.  I signed up for a part-time PhD in 1997, and continued to work full-time as a tutor.

Over the next few years we developed undergraduate and masters programmes in English Language and in TEFL at Swansea, and after completing the PhD in late 2003, I moved onto a full academic contract, in the discipline of Applied Linguistics. In the following years I was fortunate to work with some inspiring colleagues, on stimulating research projects and in challenging administrative posts.

Plenary speaker, vocabulary conference, Tokyo 2016

In 2012 I moved to Cardiff to take up a professorial position, and through that role, and through my activities as Chair of the British Association for Applied Linguistics (2015-18), I have learned a huge amount about my discipline and higher education more broadly.

Returning to Swansea last month felt in some ways like a homecoming, and in some ways like the start of a whole new adventure.

Swansea has a long tradition of community partnerships, multidisciplinary work, innovative language teaching (in Welsh and other Modern Languages as well as English), and strong English Language and TESOL programmes, and is an excellent setting for Applied Linguistics work, which is often defined as “the theoretical and empirical study of real world problems in which language is a central issue” (Brumfit, 1995).  That definition chimes well with the expertise and motivations of the team at Swansea, and with my own research, which addresses questions in the contexts of language learning and teaching (how to do it efficiently?), language testing (how to make it accurate and fair?), health communication (how to maximise understanding between patients and health professionals?), dementia (are there early linguistic markers?), the bilingual environment (how to optimise the advantages of living in the UK’s largest bilingual community?), and healthy ageing (are generational differences due to cognition or culture?). These contexts and questions sound diverse, but the common thread running through my research is the lexical, or vocabulary-based, perspective that I initially found through my PhD work.

I am committed to a joined-up approach to academic study that finds synergies between teaching and research activity, and equips our students to address critical challenges in language technology, communication disorders, literacy, social media ethics, national security, online safety, language learning, language policy, and many other domains.

Many of these challenges were not even imaginable back in 1985 when I first came to Swansea, but our capacity to train new generations of applied linguists to tackle them grows daily.  I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Swansea colleagues and students for welcoming and supporting me through my first month in post.

Ymlaen ac i fyny!