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‘Learning a language requires a holistic approach’

Follow Emma Chen’s journey from dancer to bilingual PhD Candidate
December 20, 2023

Three side-by-side photos of a young woman performing dance moves while sitting on a chair “Montreal has lots of culture and languages that you can switch in and out of and I really enjoy that,” explains Emma Chen, dancer and PhD candidate in the Department of Health, Kinesiology and Applied Physiology

Emma Chen, a PhD candidate in Concordia’s Department of Health, Kinesiology, and Applied Physiology, seamlessly weaves her dancing background into her academic journey as she pursues research on the impact movement can have on the well-being of older adults.

Originally from Kingston, Ontario, Chen came to Montreal in 2016 for her undergraduate studies. She was drawn to the city’s rich arts scene and its reputation for diversity. 

A dancer with a desire to explore sports psychology, Chen’s academic path took an unexpected turn when she enrolled in a biomechanics course in 2018, taught by her future supervisor, Mary Roberts, lab instructor in the Department of Health, Kinesiology and Applied Physiology.

Under Roberts, Chen embarked on a groundbreaking undergraduate research project led by Sarah DiPasquale at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, that explored the use of dance classes to enhance balance for individuals living with intellectual disabilities. 

A unique approach to fall prevention

Eventually, Chen received the Concordia Undergraduate Student Research Award which allowed her to launch her own research project to address fall prevention among older adults. “It’s a pressing issue since falls cause 95 per cent of hip fractures among older Canadians, and disproportionately affect women,” she explains.

What makes Chen’s approach unique is the integration of dance as a method to enhance physical fitness and balance. Her efforts using online classes have allowed her to reach participants across a wide geographic area, from St-Sauveur, Quebec, to Hamilton, Ontario.

Chen’s work also earned her an Ed Whitlock Fellowship (2023), a Canadian Graduate Scholarship Master’s Training (2022-2023) from the Canadian Institute of Health Research and a Master’s Training Scholarship (2022-2024) from Fonds de recherche du Québec - Santé. She continued to expand the program through her master’s and PhD research, incorporating online dance classes and in-person testing after the onset of COVID-19. 

In total, Chen reached approximately 70 adults across Quebec and Canada.

A love of Montreal’s multicultural environment

Throughout her time at Concordia, Chen says, she has embraced Montreal’s bilingual and multicultural environment. Within a few years, she went from being an anglophone newcomer to a confident bilingual communicator. And being fluent in French allowed her to invite francophones to join her project as research subjects.

“Montreal has lots of culture and languages that you can switch in and out of, and I really enjoy that,” she says.

Given the recent news surrounding the tuition-fee increases for out-of-province students, Chen says she’s concerned about reduced access to post-secondary education in Quebec. She argues that it’s important to have a diverse student body as it enriches research perspectives.

Chen says her own language journey was challenging, but the support she got at Concordia helped greatly. “Learning a language requires a more holistic approach,” she says. “An individual needs real-world experiences and day-to-day language use, which is something I am lucky to be able to practice when doing my research work.”

As a pioneering researcher at Concordia, Chen is carving out a place at the intersection of dance, health and academia — looking forward to a future where the language of inclusivity and diversity moves gracefully across disciplines and borders.


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