Innovator Spotlight: Xiaoting Li

Xiaoting Li discusses how people with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds can work together to accomplish a common goal using a collective, collaborative approach in a globalized world.

Xiaoting Li, an associate professor in the East Asian Studies Department in the Faculty of Arts, examines how Mandarin and English speakers direct each other towards collaboration and how breakdowns in communication and cooperation, instances of cultural stereotyping, and divisiveness and tension impact the ability to work cohesively.

In this week’s spotlight, Xiaoting discusses how common goals can facilitate collaboration despite linguistic and cultural differences and how her instructional methods focus on creating opportunities for student success.

How do you describe your work to people who don’t work in your field?

In my research, I analyze video-recorded Mandarin Chinese interactions to study how Mandarin Chinese speakers use language and nonverbal behaviours to communicate with one another in social interaction. In a recent CFI-funded project, I examine how Mandarin Chinese and English speakers use language and nonverbal behaviors to request others’ assistance in joint activities.

What’s one big problem you want to solve through your work?

There are things in life that we cannot do alone — or that we do better together. In multicultural Canada, and more broadly in today’s globalized world, people often need to work with and direct others who are from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds to accomplish collaborative activities.

Although our knowledge of different language systems such as English and Chinese is extensive, there is little empirical knowledge of how people — particularly those who speak Chinese — direct others to do things in their daily interactions. This lack of knowledge may lead to communication and cooperation breakdown, perpetuate cultural stereotypes, and create tension and divide. My research addresses this problem by examining how Mandarin and English speakers direct each other to do things towards a common goal in collaborative activities.

What does the word “innovation” mean to you?

To me, “innovation” means new methods and new ideas. In my recent CFI-funded research in the Chinese Multimodality Lab, I use cutting-edge video recording technologies to develop a new multimodal methodology to study interactions on the move.

What’s been your biggest a-ha moment — in life or work — so far?

I have had many a-ha moments in my work. Almost in every research project, I experience an a-ha moment when my research questions are answered. In my teaching, I have a-ha moments when I see students’ improved skills and increased knowledge after I adopt new instructional methods.

How do you or your team come up with your best ideas?

My research ideas are mainly from two sources: observations of experiences and issues in social life, and interactions with researchers in my own as well as other disciplines. So making the time to observe and seek opportunities to work with researchers from other research fields and disciplines have helped me come up with new research ideas.

Do you have a role model at the U of A? How have they influenced you?

Many colleagues at the university have helped and inspired me in my work. I have been working with five women researchers on campus, Jennifer Dailey-O’Cain and Elisabeth Le in Modern Languages and Cultural Studies, Sarah Moore in Marketing and Elena Nicoladis and Kim Noels in Psychology on a team research project funded by the Kule Institute for Advanced Studies and the Faculty of Arts Language, Communication and Culture Signature Area. I have benefited greatly from working with them.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Innovator Spotlight is a series that introduces you to a faculty or staff member whose big ideas are making a big difference.

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About Xiaoting

Dr. Xiaoting Li is an Associate Professor of Chinese Linguistics at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Alberta. She received her PhD in linguistics and applied linguistics at Peking University, China, in 2011. She was a DAAD fellow at the University of Potsdam (2008-2010), a research fellow at the Siebold-Collegium Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Würzburg (2020), and received the Humboldt Fellowship to conduct her research at the University of Freiburg (2019-2021). She is a recipient of the Dissertation Award (the German Society for Discourse and Interaction Analysis) in 2010, and the Martha Cook Piper Research Prize at the University of Alberta in 2021.