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Research Beyond Borders with Natalia Bichurina

by Natalia Bichurina, PhD, Senior researcher at the University of Lausanne (Sociolinguistics, Linguistic Anthropology)


My field research adventure began as I stepped on a train, setting off for a summer practice after my second year of university. I was then 18. With my three best friends, with sleeping bags, tape recorders and lots of blank tapes (and one music tape that we would listen to repeatedly for an entire month), we sat in an open carriage where we were to spend three days and two nights on the wheels.


In the excitement of travel and in anticipation of the unknown: living for three weeks in a remote village, learning to speak an unknown language and getting acquainted with an unfamiliar lifestyle (I studied the revitalisation efforts of a local mostly oral language). From that moment what some find frightening—the so-called language barrier (especially if the language to acquire is mostly oral), the lack of any prior knowledge of anyone or anything local—was attracting me.


From that moment what some find frightening—the so-called language barrier (especially if the language to acquire is mostly oral), the lack of any prior knowledge of anyone or anything local—was attracting me.



After I finished university, I worked in my home city of St. Petersburg in the field of cultural diplomacy for nearly five years, still conducting fieldwork during my leaves and doing research in my free time. Eventually though my curiosity and desire to explore outweighed my love for the life that I was living. By now, I have lived in 10 different regions of 6 countries, I have been for work in 33 countries. My research path brought me to a small mountain village in the Alps at the foot of the Mont Blanc (the furthest socio-culturally from where I come from) where I lived for over two years, and to cities like Sydney (the furthest geographically), which was part of my PhD.


Living the extraordinary multitude of the ordinary and the conventional (in both everyday life and science), going beyond the situated certainties (of what is befitted for a well brought-up human being, or what being a researcher means), constantly challenging myself…


Doing Masters’, PhD and Postdoc within various universities, I was immersed in English-speaking (Universities of Saint Andrews and Sydney), Romance (Lausane, Bergamo, Perpignan) and Russian (two universities in Saint Petersburg) academic worlds. My approach critically combines them all.


By now, I have lived in 10 different regions of 6 countries, I have been for work in 33 countries. My research path brought me to a small mountain village in the Alps at the foot of the Mont Blanc (the furthest socio-culturally from where I come from) where I lived for over two years, and to cities like Sydney (the furthest geographically), which was part of my PhD.

Namely, in my book published at the end of 2019 (in French), I study a trans-border community between Switzerland, France and Italy, which speaks Francoprovençal. One part is dedicated to Francoprovençal speakers’ migration from Switzerland to the Russian empire in the 19th century (today in Ukraine).


I explore how what used to be seen as ‘dialects’ or ‘patois’ becomes categorised as a ‘minority language’, and how what a (minority) language is, and what a language policy is or should be, varies crucially in different socio-political contexts, as well as in different academic traditions.


Natalia Bichurina on the current situation:

Today I am a confined researcher. I was back to Petersburg waiting for yet another work permit and visa (the usual story…) in order to start a new research project in Switzerland, which has been selected for funding. Then the borders were closed.


Now I stay at my ‘dacha’ (a wooden house in the countryside) with my parents, grandmother, three golden retrievers and a cat. As a researcher, albeit currently unemployed, I still have this article to write, that research project to submit, that one book to read, as I have promised to write a review...


As a human with many attachments throughout the world, I was emotionally affected by the epidemic long before it hit the place where I am (I have friends in China, I lived in Bergamo as part of my PhD, etc. etc.) I was also bemused by how little people turned out to really know about other places in the apparently globalised world, as the pandemic was spreading geographically and the same patterns of behaviour would be found in one place after another, with the same doubts reiterated…


Would you like to contribute your story of Research Beyond Borders? Email us at socialmedia.coordinator@em-a.eu.

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