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Rooms to Grow: Linguistic Labs Enhance Faculty Research, Student Learning
In a third-floor room in Trimble Hall, doctoral student Namrata Dubey is listening to a voice recording of elder Native Americans and taking notes. As sunlight spills in through high windows, she and her classmates pause the recording and debate the speaker’s use of a particular vowel sound. In the quiet of the work space, tucked away from passing conversations or classroom discussions, Dubey and company are able to dissect every tone, every syllable and every inflection of an endangered language that may be lost in a few short generations.
It is one of several projects running in the Phonetics Laboratory, a space within the Department of Linguistics and TESOL dedicated to faculty and student research. The repurposed room opened in January 2010, and includes an isolation booth and three computer workstations with state-of-the-art recording software. It is one of three labs designed to raise the level of research and teaching within the department.
“Having lab space like this puts us in a much better position as [The University of Texas at Arlington] moves toward Tier One,” said Dr. Cynthia Kilpatrick, Assistant Professor and director of the Phonetics Lab. “It allows students and faculty to work in a quality space … and enhances collaborative efforts across the department. It moves our work into a different arena. Having this lab space is essential to the work that we do.”
Kilpatrick is one of several linguistic professors utilizing the lab for their own research. Early this year, she and department chair Dr. Colleen Fitzgerald — with help from Dubey and her classmates — conducted research on the Tohono O’odham language, a member of the Uto-Aztecan language family spoken by Native Americans in southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. Assistant Professor Dr. Joey Sabbagh is using the lab to document the “intonation on property” in Tagalog, the native language in the Philippines.
“As the field of linguistics has progressed, laboratory work has become much more popular,” Kilpatrick said. “Laboratory phonology has really exploded and taken off, and in order to produce quality work, you need space. You need space to do recordings, to analyze recordings and allow people to come together to collaborate and do the best work possible.”
Without the Phonetics Laboratory, Kilpatrick and her team wouldn’t be able to finish work on a project that stems from her dissertation, “Perception on Hiatus in Language Teaching.” In one experiment, student subjects enter the isolation booth, listen to sounds through headphones and make decisions based on the sounds they hear. They then leave the booth and receive explicit training about the sounds they are hearing. Then, they return to the booth, the process begins again, and Kilpatrick and her team track what difference, if any, the instruction had on the student’s response.
“You might think you could do that in a professor’s office, but it’s really not possible,” Kilpatrick said. “What we’re looking at is speech perception and you really need the quietness of the booth. This way, students hear what we want them to hear, and not a conversation next door or out in the hall.”
In adjacent Hammond Hall, two floors down, Dr. Jeff Witzel is running an experiment that measures student responses to visual and auditory stimuli in the new Psycholinguistics Laboratory. Assistant professor and director of the lab, Witzel said the space was created to give researchers more room to move and provide computer workstations with specialized equipment.
“Psycholinguistics is the study of the processes involved in the real-time production and comprehension of language,” Witzel said. “The main goal [of the lab] is to run experiments to understand how native- and non-native-speakers use their knowledge of language when they are speaking and comprehending. And we hope that this research will have some practical applications. For example, it will help us to develop best practices for language teaching and instructional materials.”
The lab features four stations for running experiments on DMDX, a software tool used to measure responses to visual and auditory stimuli. At these stations, Witzel said it is possible to run a range of experimental tasks, including lexical decision, word/picture naming, semantic categorization, moving-window self-paced reading, maze task self-paced reading, speeded grammaticality judgment, and sentence matching.
A separate station includes eye-tracking software that will allow researchers to study a test subject’s eye movement patterns. Witzel said this would enable linguists to examine where people look at a scene while listening to an audio recording or where the eye moves as the brain processes text on a screen.
Fitzgerald said another lab for language documentation, directed by incoming Assistant Professor Dr. Jason Kandybowicz, will open Fall 2011 and provide students and faculty additional opportunity and resources. She said doctoral student Joshua Jensen, who received a National Science Foundation grant earlier this year, will use the new lab for his dissertation work on Jarai speakers.
“These spaces will allow students at every degree level to work firsthand on projects and be able to implement their own,” said Fitzgerald, who also received an NSF grant this year to study endangered languages. “We see more and more undergraduates doing research. Having a place for those students to build those skills means they will be able to get into the best [graduate] programs. Additionally, we will be able to recruit the best and brightest for our program.”
Access to better research tools and facilities is one of the reasons Dubey chose UT Arlington. A native of India, her previous research experience was limited, and often times she found herself fighting to keep conversation from other students in a general-use computer lab from corrupting her research data and analysis. Working on a small team with Kilpatrick and Fitzgerald enabled the second-year grad student to make her first poster presentation at a national phonology conference and gain much-need confidence in her future as a linguistic researcher.
“In India, they pay attention to research but students are not given as much exposure as they do in the U.S.,” she said. “Here, I learned how to do research and complete a project. Presenting the information through our poster exhibit was great exposure. I feel much more confidence doing my own work after collaborating on this project.”
The lab spaces are also important when it comes to grant writing and allowing faculty to get the funding support they need for their research and their students.
“If we want to enhance the education of our students in this department, the labs are here to do that,” Kilpatrick said. “But because many students aren’t funded, they have to work off campus, they have other obligations and they can’t get involved in research to the extent they want or need to. I see, as a great need, more opportunities for funding for our students. Part of the pressure is on us as faculty to get the grants that will support our students in our research work.”In the linguistics department, faculty members are stepping up to meet the financial needs of their students. Retiring Professor Dr. Jerry Edmondson — a member of the university’s Academy of Distinguished Scholars who taught here for 30 years — has pledged $25,000 to begin an endowment for graduate student research. Many of his colleagues are contributing as well.
“We have a lot of ways to tell our story,” Fitzgerald said, “and we have a lot of stories in our department. The labs are an important part of helping people visualize what we do. With these lab spaces, our department can continue to have research-oriented faculty and top-notch graduate students.”
And the research experiences like those of Dubey and her classmates will produce stronger researchers, better students and quality linguists, Kilpatrick said.
“Collaboration enhances research because we get more ideas from the people around us,” she said. “Also, students learn a lot in a classroom, but hands-on research is much more exciting. Do you want to be in a library, researching a topic, or do you want to get your hands dirty? The experimental work going on in our department means students can get involved earlier.”
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