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Vol 38  No 12
April 6, 2006



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Linguistics leading the way in language acquisition

By Leslie Vryenhoek

Dr. Yvan Rose and graduate student Erin Swain demonstrate ultrasound technology that allows a speaker to see an image of the tongue in motion. Technology and research in Memorial’s Linguistics Department are helping advance the science of language acquisition and speech.

The opening of a new linguistics lab on the St. John’s campus, along with the development of cutting-edge software, is positioning Memorial University as a national and international leader of research in language acquisition.

The possibility of building a well-equipped Speech Sciences and Language Acquisition Lab was a big part of what attracted Dr. Yvan Rose, a phonology researcher, to Memorial. Dr. Rose is interested in the physiological and articulatory aspects of speech, and how children acquire language. “How do they start with nothing, and end up being good speakers of their language in just a couple of years of life?” he asked, adding that this question is even more puzzling when one considers that it takes about six years for a child’s vocal tract to become like that of an adult.

“There are lots of problems that can be related to speech and language acquisition, problems found in acoustic, articulatory or cognitive aspects,” Dr. Rose said, “so we are facing a pretty complicated task when trying to understand how a child has developed language and speech patterns, or ended up with problems in those areas.”

While speech pathologists have had great success in addressing that complicated task, Dr. Rose noted that there has never been a comprehensive computer program to enable phonological and phonetic analysis of speech.

“We know what kinds of problems kids typically have, but we don’t have large-scale normative data to tell us what an entire population does ­ not in any language, even the most studied ones.” He likened the current data set to “a scrapbook” that provides an incomplete story.

That, however, is about to change with the development of software called Phon, and the subsequent creation of a database called PhonBank, a massive, powerful open source tool for those working in language acquisition and speech disorders around the world.

The Phon project melds the linguistics expertise of Dr. Rose and the software design and programming skills of Greg Hedlund, a Memorial graduate, and several members of the Computer Sciences Department, where Drs. Todd Wareham and Rodrigue Byrne are spearheading student work on this project. Together, they are developing software with multimedia applications. Ultimately, this will allow researchers and practitioners around the world to quickly locate segmented phrases, word and syllables using terminology standard to phonology. By aligning sound files, users will be able to see where discrepancies in speech are occurring, and access data that will shed light on possible causes.

“The need is so big for something like this,” Dr. Rose said. “It’s only in recent years that digital recording and computer power have been available to make it happen.”

The project has drawn significant funding from Memorial University’s Faculty of Arts and Office of the Vice-President (Research), as well as from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Industrial Research and Innovation Fund of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the National Science Foundation through a collaboration with Dr. Brian MacWhinney, a world-renowned psychologist specializing in language development.

In addition to its significant computing power, the Speech Sciences and Language Acquisition Lab includes a soundproof recording booth decorated to appeal to very young research subjects, and a compact ultrasound machine that provides visual feedback on the movement of the tongue.

The laboratory resources are available to faculty and students.


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