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Rutgers linguistics lab researches computer interactions with language

Dr. Kristen Syrett, lab director and principal investigator at the Laboratory for Developmental Language Studies, established the lab when she joined the Rutgers faculty in 2011. – Photo by Photo by Facebook | The Daily Targum

The research being done at the Laboratory for Developmental Language Studies (LDLS) has implications extending far beyond the field of linguistics. 

Dr. Kristen Syrett, lab director and principal investigator, established the LDLS when she joined the Rutgers faculty in 2011.

“It’s exciting to be part of an institution that really values scientific inquiry and promoting that kind of (scientific) work,” Syrett said. 

One of the things their research investigates is "developmental language," which refers to the process that young children (up to age 5) undergo while first learning — or "acquiring" — language. 

“The research that we (and other labs) do provides a deeper understanding of cognition (thinking), and about what it means to know a language,” said Megan Gotowski, a third-year graduate in the Department of Linguistics Ph.D. program. 

Staff at the LDLS said that “what it means to know a language” is a universally important concept. Whether language is verbal or non-verbal, nearly everyone communicates using some sort of language. The work done at the LDLS aims to gain a better understanding of language at its roots: children. 

This does not mean that the lab only uses child participants. In fact, most studies done on children require a second testing group made up of adults, usually ages 19 to 22, to act as a control (or baseline). 

Taylor Martinez, lab coordinator and Class of 2019 alumna, is in charge of obtaining research participants. She said she selects most of the adult participants from the undergraduate students in the Department of Linguistics, and she gets most of the child participants from the Rutgers daycare centers. 

In terms of participant population, Rutgers offers another opportunity for researchers: the linguistic diversity of the student body and surrounding communities. This diversity allows for a variety of studies done on topics such as bilingualism, multilingualism and accents, as in the case of an honors thesis by Ilana Torres, a research assistant.

Torres, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said she is interested in how the perception of accents of non-native English speakers affects listeners’ judgments and reactions to those speakers. In short, she said she investigates whether children — and the adult control group — are more likely to agree with a non-accented speaker over an accented speaker. 

The experiment is specifically in the context of an “instance of faultless agreement," essentially when both speakers are right, usually indicating that they are expressing subjective but opposing statements. 

While Torres’s work does not have generalized conclusions, as the study is ongoing, its implications are potentially far-reaching. Torres said she has referenced other research that displays a certain bias in listeners toward non-accented speakers. That is, they are more likely to ally with speakers who do not have an accent. 

That such prejudice could be ingrained in children as young as 5 years old should be of great concern to a society attempting to become more egalitarian. 

"Working in the lab inspired me to do my own thesis, and now I’m running my own experiment, which is ... amazing," she said of her time as a research assistant. She also said that without the support of research facilities such as the LDLS, such studies might not even happen

Martinez, the lab coordinator, agreed. In particular, she admires how the environment at the LDLS involves people with academic backgrounds outside of linguistics. 

"Yes, we all study linguistics, but we all have different interests ... it’s cool to see how everyone’s interests come to light in their studies," she said of the LDLS staff.

Linguistics, in itself, is naturally interdisciplinary. It often intersects with the fields of psychology, cognitive science, anthropology and philosophy. But beyond that, it also interacts with seemingly very different fields, such as computer science. 

The fact that computers and children get confused in a similar way points to a commonality in language acquisition — not just in humans, but in technology. Such collaborative research gives unique insights in both fields, and is particularly relevant in a time when technology is increasingly integrated into our daily lives.

“The more we understand about how complex language is, and the more we dispel these rumors about language learning and bilingualism … I think we can create a more understanding society," Martinez said.


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