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This year, Linguistics emerged as an autonomous program, unifying the former undergraduate and graduate programs. Linguistics has recently seen an expansion of faculty, funded research, course offerings, and degree programs, as well as a major revision to its curriculum. Joint majors are now offered with French, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, and philosophy; and a new intercollegiate major with SAR has just been approved: Linguistics & Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences. On the graduate front, the program is transitioning from “Applied Linguistics” to “Linguistics.” A new Linguistics MA has just been approved. This realignment of the graduate program better reflects the research interests of the faculty.

In the midst of these positive changes, CAS News spoke with the program’s director, Professor Carol Neidle, to get a deeper look at how BU Linguistics is growing, and the impact it is having within the field.

Aside from the restructuring of the program, what’s new with BU Linguistics?

There have been many exciting developments recently. There has been a steady growth in our research activities, which have been well funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). We have also been sponsoring a variety of activities, including a new colloquium series this year.

We will be hosting the Biennial Conference on Speech Prosody this month, the only recurring international meeting focused on prosody (patterns of rhythm and intonation) as an organizing principle for the social, psychological, and technological aspects of spoken language. Associate Professor of Linguistics Jon Barnes heads the organizing committee; a recent BU PhD recipient (who had received NSF support for her dissertation research on prosody) is also a co-organizer. NSF has also provided funding to allow exploration of ways of “Facilitating Remote Participation at International Scientific Conferences,” which will include mobile telepresence robots.

This past November, we marked the 40th year of our internationally renowned BU Conference on Language Development (BUCLD), regarded by many as the most prestigious venue for dissemination of research on language acquisition. This annual conference, which has received financial support from the NSF and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has brought together linguists and psychologists doing cutting-edge research for lively discussion and debate about current topics in the study of language learning and development. The BUCLD has been extremely influential in the field, at the forefront of new approaches to the study of language acquisition.

Tell us a little about all of the exciting research that’s been happening.

Associate Professor of Linguistics Jon Barnes heads a laboratory that applies experimental methods to the study of tone and intonation. Danny Erker, Assistant Professor of Spanish and Linguistics, has been leading a project on Spanish in Boston, which aims to describe and understand how Spanish is used in the Greater Boston area. The American Sign Language Linguistic Research Project (ASLLRP), which I have been directing, involves collaborations between linguists interested in the structure of American Sign Language (ASL) and computer scientists interested in the challenging problems of sign language recognition from video. We have also been developing tools to facilitate the linguistic analysis of visual language data and building an expanding, linguistically annotated, ASL video corpus. Several members of the Linguistics faculty have been conducting research on endangered languages, including indigenous languages of the Americas and Africa. The NSF has provided funding for all of these projects.

Are students involved in this research?

All of these projects and others have provided excellent opportunities for undergraduates and graduate students to become involved in interesting and important research. Several students have had the opportunity to travel to remote locations to do field work; students have worked on Northern Pomo (in California), Quechua (in Bolivia and Ecuador), and Medumba (in Cameroon).

Our undergraduates have also benefited from the UROP program. Three students are currently engaged in UROP-sponsored research. One is conducting a sociolinguistic study of Quechua and Spanish bilinguals; another is working on a phonetic description of Southeastern Pomo; and a third is investigating sound changes in Korean.

What types of careers have graduates of the Linguistics Program gone on to have? In what fields?

Unsurprisingly, there is wide variation in the careers that graduates from our Linguistics programs have pursued. Quite a few of our undergraduates have gone on to study linguistics or related fields at the graduate level (many at top universities) and are now working as professors and researchers. Others have gone into university-level administration or secondary school teaching (including bilingual education). Yet others have applied their knowledge about languages and linguistics, and the skills in logical argumentation and analysis of data that are cultivated as part of their academic training in linguistics, to other career paths. Some have gone directly in the workforce, doing data or text analysis for large companies. Some have pursued careers in translation, interpreting, editing, or publishing. Still others have used their linguistics background to pursue degrees in law or medicine, work in nonprofits, and/or international business. Graduates of our PhD program have gone on to postdoctoral research or faculty positions at a wide range of universities in the US and abroad.

What are some important trends in the field of linguistics today?

Linguistics has long-standing connections to a wide range of academic disciplines, such as philosophy, languages and literatures, education, language disorders, neuroscience, and computer science. Interesting results are emerging at the interfaces between linguistics and these neighboring fields.

Linguists are also increasingly taking advantage of experimental and/or quantitative methods to address important, outstanding questions about language knowledge, use, and acquisition. For example, generalizations about language previously examined through introspection are being re-examined in laboratory experiments or through large-scale corpus investigations. To take an example from phonetics and phonology (the study of speech sounds and sound patterns in language), open-source software now allows acoustic measurements and statistical analyses to be performed in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost than was the case even ten years ago. To take another example from the comparative study of dialects, the fact that we can now perform surveys online allows us to access data from a much larger and more diverse population than was once the case. New technologies and analytical tools have vastly expanded the range of methodologies linguists use.

The field has also entered the age of big data. However, this has not led to abandonment of old methods. Instead, traditional methodologies are being applied in ever deeper and more systematic ways, not only by taking advantage of new technologies, but also by assimilating and building on the great amount of progress the field made with traditional methods before the digital revolution.

BU is responding very directly to the general trends in the field. Not only are our current faculty members direct participants and leaders in empirically based, theoretically grounded, linguistic inquiry, but we also anticipate additional hires in critical new areas.

Where do you see the field of linguistics going over the next few decades?

In its relatively short existence, modern linguistics has made tremendous progress in deepening and broadening our understanding of human language–its structure, its evolution, and how it both shapes and is shaped by our societies. This will continue, but at a much quicker pace than was previously possible, thanks to the vast increase in the types and quantities of data we can now access, and the speed with which scholarly communication can now take place. We expect that Boston University will be a dynamic and formidable contributor to these developments.

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