Linguistics faculty in English pursue university-supported research projects

Linguistics faculty in English pursue university-supported research projects

Linguistics faculty in English pursue university-supported research projects

As faculty members at a public research university, Wayne State professors both teach and pursue ambitious research agendas that strive to fulfill the university’s mission of creating and advancing knowledge.

In the academic year 2021-22, three professors from the Department of English have had research leaves thanks to support from the university: Ljiljana Progovac (professor), Natalia Rakhlin (associate professor) and Petr Staroverov (assistant professor). All three of these professors specialize in linguistics, and their research aims to advance scholarship on linguistics as well as to contribute to the ways we learn and perceive language itself. 

Professor Staroverov initially decided to study linguistics so that he could combine his interests in math and science. He has been an assistant professor at Wayne State University since 2016, and he founded the Wayne State Phonetics and Fieldwork Lab. After one of his lectures, a talented student approached him with a challenging observation. In American and British English, aspirated stops (the beginning sounds of words like “pat,” “top,” and “cat”) have a puff of air, called aspiration, that is not used universally by all English speakers. Indeed, native Indian speakers do not appear to produce these aspiration sounds when speaking English.

While it might appear that these speakers are influenced by the sounds of their native language, Indian languages have plenty of their own aspiration sounds. Professor Staroverov is using a Josephine Nevins Keal Faculty Fellowship to conduct research into why Indian speakers of English do not produce these aspiration sounds. Using an online protocol due to the pandemic, he has been working with native Hindi speakers who have no daily experience with American or British English in order to see if sounds in Indian languages are actually produced with a puff of air that is much stronger and longer than Indian English. In that case, aspiration would be occurring, but English speakers might not hear it because it is not aspirated enough for them, so they subconsciously ignore it.

Since a major problem of learning foreign languages is memorizing words and how they are pronounced, Professor Staroverov’s research has applications to foreign language learning. By studying how one speaker of one language dialect interacts with another language or dialect, linguists can investigate what is happening in the perceptual system. Ultimately, this research will help improve the teaching of second languages and reduce the accents of non-native speakers.  

The field of linguistics first caught Professor Rakhlin’s attention during her college education, when she attended a lecture exploring how the scientific study of linguistics allows us to understand human nature and the mind. She has devoted her career to this topic, with a particular focus on the way that language develops in children before they become adults. Professor Rakhlin’s research addresses Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), an inherited condition that involves difficulty with spoken language and that has no known causes. Diagnoses of DLD are most reliable at the ages of 6 and 7 years, but at this point the brain is already far past the prime for acquiring language. The closer the brain is to full maturation, the more conscious effort it takes to learn language and the less effective therapy is.

Professor Rahklin aims to identify DLD in children at the youngest possible age and then start therapy immediately. For example, if linguists could reliably predict DLD at the age of 2, or even earlier, these children would likely be able to catch up to their peers by the time they begin school. Professor Rahklin is collaborating with researchers from St. Petersburg State University in Russia to study an isolated population in Northern Russia with a high rate of DLD. A university-funded sabbatical has helped support her work with children between the ages of two and five years old. In addition to analyzing samples of their language, she has collected their DNA and electroencephalography (EEG) data recorded as they listened to stories. Professor Rahklin will use this data to establish behavioral norms that may reliably predict the likelihood that 18 to 24-month-old children will develop DLD later on. Professor Rahklin’s research will thus help make it possible for at-risk children to be identified and receive therapy that can optimize their language learning. 

Professor Progovac joined the faculty of Wayne State University in 1991, served as the director of the Linguistics Program from 2007 to 2017, and is currently the graduate director for the Linguistics M.A. program. Her interest in linguistics lies in the intricacies in the grammar of different languages, especially in relation to human cognition, and her Keal-supported research explores this topic. Professor Progovac began the primary research for her project thirteen years ago, when influential linguists such as Noam Chomsky began to make original claims about how language has evolved. A consensus started to emerge that a single gene mutation caused syntax and grammar to evolve instantaneously among human beings. Because of this mutation, scholars suggested that human language and cognitive hardware had remained the same for the past 20,000 years.

Since this theory contradicted Professor Progovac’s own understanding of evolution and language, she decided to set forth an alternative understanding of how language evolved. This work resulted in the publication of a major monograph, Evolutionary Syntax (Oxford University Press, 2015). The goal of Professor Progovac’s current project is to find genetic signatures of the structural aspects of human language by combining biology, anthropology, neuroscience, and linguistics. These signatures are important because grammar separates humans from other species. As a result, Professor Progovac’s work may help us to trace the process of human evolution and to understand how and why variation — both genetic and grammatical — occurs. 

Taken together, these three projects demonstrate the intellectual breadth and dynamism of linguistics as a field. As Professor Staroverov noted in an interview, “linguistics is about diversity.” At the same time, Professor Rakhlin observed that the study of linguistics is important for our understanding of communication: “since we all speak a language, we all need to have at least a basic knowledge of how language works (its structure, acquisition, and use), to be considered an educated person.”

Finally, as Professor Progovac commented, “Language is a quintessential human trait which pervades almost every human activity and ability. Linguistics is the only field that studies the structures and uses of human languages scientifically in a systematic and precise way.” Linguistics is thus an essential field of study, one that unites language and the sciences in ways that help us understand ourselves, our past, and our world.

– Ashley Asimakopoulos