Carnegie Mellon University
September 21, 2023

Alumnus Dan Walter Pursues Interdisciplinary Research in Second Language Acquisition

By KellyAnn Tsai

Daniel Walter (DC 2015) received his Ph.D. in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) from Carnegie Mellon University in 2015. Today, he is an assistant professor of German and linguistics at Emory University’s Oxford College and a scholar in second language acquisition, with intersections in psychology, linguistics, education and German studies.

At Oxford College, Walter teaches first- and second-year courses on a range of topics including English, linguistics and German language. He credits his training in CMU’s SLA doctoral program with preparing him to cross disciplinary boundaries and develop unique collaborations with scholars in fields from psychology to physics.

We sat down with Walter to discuss his experience in the Ph.D. SLA program at Carnegie Mellon, his latest projects and his advice for students interested in pursuing a doctorate degree.

Tell me about your research.

I research real-world applications of psycholinguistic processes. I try to understand how the brain, mind and body process language and how that translates to pedagogy, teaching methods and understanding classroom behavior. That's the core of what I do. 

In addition to this, I also conduct psycholinguistics research, including how learners process complex morphosyntax in a second language. I focus specifically on German case and gender marking — everything from how learners process that information and how we design pedagogy that makes use of these findings. 

Why did you decide to pursue the Ph.D. in Second Language Acquisition at CMU? 

I had two amazing German teachers in high school, and that made me want to pursue German for my bachelor's degree. I didn't learn about second language acquisition until my last semester in college, when I took a course with Dr. Mark Overstreet on SLA theory. I was working very long days at that time, but I was still super interested in class and kept asking questions. Dr. Overstreet said to me, “If you're really interested, let's talk about what the next steps are.”

I knew I was interested in second language acquisition, but I didn't have much experience or background in it. For my Master’s degree, I picked a German program that also allowed me to take classes in linguistics and second language acquisition. It was the first time I had taken advanced syntax classes, morphology classes as well as SLA theory classes. 

When it came to choosing a Ph.D. program, I was drawn to Carnegie Mellon’s SLA program because it was a multi-language department, not just a German department. I was also drawn to the fact that there were professors from many different fields in the program, and that my coursework would be more SLA-focused, rather than German-focused.

What were the highlights of your experience in the SLA Ph.D. program?

One of the highlights was getting to take classes and conduct research with almost everyone in the program. I was exposed to different perspectives on how [faculty] thought about the SLA field as a whole. It was eye-opening for me to see the different ways that people in the same field approached questions.

I would also say my weekly meetings with my advisor, Brian MacWhinney, was the best experience I could have had. I called him Brian from the day I got in the program, because I honestly didn't know how famous he was when I first started. But he always just treated me like family. 

Beyond the program, I was also very involved in the graduate student assembly at CMU. That was one of the most important leadership building experiences I've ever had. I was actually part of the group that put together the proposal and built the graduate student lounge. The graduate student camaraderie was one of the best parts of being at Carnegie Mellon.

How did the Ph.D. in SLA prepare you for your academic career?

Something I’ve taken from my experience in the SLA program is seeing how people approach problems differently. This is something I've really applied here at Oxford, both in my teaching as well as in my research.

I've taught over 20 different classes between German linguistics, psycholinguistics, second language acquisition and German language. Being able to connect my own thread across classes has been really important. I can teach courses listed as humanities, social sciences or even science; my psycholinguistics class counts towards neuroscience and behavioral biology. It's been awesome to be someone who can teach across the curriculum. That's one thing that [my experience in the SLA program] has prepared me for.

I have worked hard to build an interdisciplinary approach to my research. I’ve worked with someone in psychology on how alcohol affects learning. I have published a paper with an economist, I've worked with people in religion, I've worked with people in physics. I was even in talks with an evolutionary biologist. Because of my training, I'm prepared to go talk to people in different fields about anything that they're doing and make a connection. I have the experience from the Ph.D. program of finding connections.

What are you currently working on?

I just published my book “Psycholinguistic Approaches to Instructed Second Language Acquisition,” which explores the connections between SLA research and instructed second language acquisition. So recently, I’ve been working on promoting my book. 

I’ve also been doing a lot of work on including more diverse populations in the German language classroom. It’s important to rethink our approach to teaching German and include voices that have historically been left out. I designed a class on minorities and minority voices in German, where all the authors we read are second language learners of German. [I want] to show students in my class that even though they’re learning German now, they could eventually go on to integrate the language in both their professional and personal lives and really shape the course of their careers and even their identities.

I’m also working with a student looking at how Germans have adopted — or rather not adopted — new gender pronouns. We look at what that means for the second language classroom and how instructors can help learners navigate that. Discussions in the United States on gender and gender pronouns are much farther ahead [than in Germany], so our students are taking these new German pronouns and using them more frequently than Germans themselves are using them. 

Do you have any advice for students who might be considering the SLA program at Carnegie Mellon?

Talk to the professors and get to know them, because you're going to be with them for the next four years.  You never know what type of research they might be doing that you might find interesting. Go out of your way to make those connections. I’d also say take as many courses in as many different disciplines as you can. Even if you don't think you will like a topic, you never know what you will find in that course. 

For general advice, get involved in as much as you can. There's so many cool people to meet from so many different programs. Get to know other graduate students in other programs, because they're doing all kinds of interesting things.

And finally, don't put your life on hold during your Ph.D. If you have a family or you want to start a family, if you’re meeting someone, getting married, doing other things that you want to do in your life — don't put it on pause for the next four years. Don't delay living your life. Make sure that you're working hard, but also make sure to take time for yourself.