Bilingual speech is unique, and different from monolingual speech. The objective of my research is to gain a greater understanding of what characterizes bilingual speech, specifically the case of Cantonese and English.

 
Faculty of Arts
Molly Babel
Seattle
United States
 

Research Description

When you speak more than one language, your languages influence each other in both speech perception and production. In this way, bilingual speech is unique, and different from monolingual speech. The objective of my research is to gain a greater understanding of what characterizes bilingual speech, specifically the case of Cantonese and English. The first step is developing a corpus—an annotated body of recorded interviews with Cantonese-English bilinguals in each of their languages. With the corpus in hand, I can collaborate with experts in areas like natural language processing to ask a variety of questions about bilingual speech. For example, can bilinguals be identified from speech in a single language? Can the other language be determined? How is speech affected by a switch between languages? Can this information be used to predict when a switch is coming? How does our understanding of monolingual speech compare to bilingual speech?

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

Understanding human language is becoming an increasingly important topic in the public eye, as speech technology increasingly affects our lives, and linguistics is area with a lot of potential for positive impact. Being a public scholar means making my research accessible to non-experts, allowing public needs and interests to inform new lines of research, and collaborating with technology companies to promote issues related to linguistic access and diversity.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

I think that it is important to think outside the institution during the time I will spend working on my PhD. I see this both in pursuing collaborations from early in my program, but also in thinking about data collection and sharing. What can the data I collect be used for beyond a dissertation? How can I maximize its usefulness? These are the types of questions that help me to re-think and re-imagine what I want my PhD to involve.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

When asked about what I want to do after graduate school, my answer is "research." One of the things I've come to understand, is that linguistics research happens in a lot of different kinds of institutions—big technology companies, small consulting firms, universities, and more. My PhD work will prepare me for collaboration across different types of institutions, regardless of which kind I ultimately conduct research from.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

Generally speaking, research on bilingualism is very centered around European languages. In the world of speech technology and natural language processing, the European language is almost always English. By studying Cantonese-English bilingual speech, I will widen the net. Once fully transcribed and annotated, the corpus will be made publicly available, and I can pursue collaborative work with the tech community, promoting research with an understudied—at least from the perspective of computational linguistics—language.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

My work contributes to the public good in (at least) two ways. First, it promotes multilingualism in an anglocentric part of the world. Second, the corpus is a publicly available resource that can be shared and used to encourage others to pursue research with it.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I started my graduate degree as an MA student interested in second language learning, specifically with respect to how variation in speech helps adults learn the sounds of a new language. During my first year, I became interested in studying the "end product"—bilingual speech. What exactly do we learn when we learn a new language? How does our speech change? Essentially, what makes bilingual speech unique? With my growing curiosity, I decided to stay and make it a PhD.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

UBC has a well-respected linguistics department, and there are a staggering number of different languages spoken across Metro Vancouver. I decided to stay at UBC, transferring from the MA to the PhD program, because UBC linguistics is a great fit for what I want to do. Many graduates go into industry, pursue interdisciplinary research (check out the Language Sciences Initiative!), and work directly with communities around BC. Also, being from Seattle, I love getting to stay in the Pacific Northwest.

 

Being a public scholar means making my research accessible to non-experts, allowing public needs and interests to inform new lines of research, and collaborating with technology companies to promote issues related to linguistic access and diversity.