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Chicago linguists get world-class research lab

By Josh Schonwald
News Office

If your research requires the ability to discern subtle distinctions on the “shhh” continuum, from “s” to “shhhhh,” if you need to precisely detect how native Mandarin speakers articulate clusters of consonants found in Slovak, well then, not any facility will do.

Last December, the Karen Landahl Center for Linguistic Research, which is named in honor of the late professor in Linguistics who died in 2003, opened in the basement of the Social Sciences Building. Long a leader in linguistics scholarship and home to the oldest linguistics department in the United States, the University now will have a world-class facility for linguistics research.

The Landahl Center will support labs covering semantics, discourse analysis, language modeling and phonology.

Niko Kontovas, an undergraduate research assistant, works in the elicitation room in the Karen Landahl Center for Linguistics Research. His voice analysis is displayed above on the computer screen and in the small photograph above. He is saying “hello everyone” in Mandarin.Photos by Lloyd DeGrane

One of the center’s key features is the “elicitation room,” which is a new sound-proof booth for high-fidelity audio recording. The $20,000 booth has a double-wall to insulate it from environmental ambient noise. Even the slightest background noise, such as the sound of HVAC pipes or the humming of a light, can create problems for researchers conducting acoustic analysis on experiments concerning speech perception.

Alan Yu, Assistant Professor in Linguistics, helped design the lab, and he plans to use it for numerous ongoing experiments, such as two projects involving Chinese speakers. One of his students, Christina Weaver, is recording native Mandarin speakers as they articulate groups of consonants. Yu is using the booth to record how Cantonese speakers produce vowels under different tonal contexts.

“In the past, we did this in my office,” said Yu, “or we used to record in a studio for language instruction. But this is so much better and will be wonderful for extremely fine acoustic analysis.”

One of the chief goals of the center, which also will house the labs of Chris Kennedy, Associate Professor in Linguistics, Robin Shoaps, Assistant Professor in Anthropology, and Jason Riggle, Assistant Professor in Linguistics, is to facilitate and foster collaborations among faculty and graduate students, said Yu.

Renowned for her exacting standards, Landahl was a phonetician and the Academic Director of the Language Labs and Archives. She died of cancer in 2003. The center will be formally dedicated in an April ceremony.

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