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Research Spotlight Lunches

Come for research, stay for lunch! At our well-loved Research Spotlight Lunches, faculty from all over campus (and this year, even beyond!) share exciting new advances in their work.


Lunch is served at 12:15 pm, talks take place 12:30-1:45 (including audience questions).


Abstracts and titles tbd.


Monday, January 9

Naomi Feldman (LING, CS): How phonetic learners should use their input

Children have impressive statistical learning abilities.  In phonetic category acquisition, for example, they are sensitive to the distributional properties of sounds in their input. However, knowing that children have statistical learning abilities is only a small part of understanding how they make use of their input during language acquisition. Using computational models, I consider three basic assumptions that go into statistical learning theories: the structure of learners' hypothesis space, the way in which input data are sampled, and the features of the input that learners attend to.  Modeling results show that although a naïve view of statistical learning may not support robust phonetic category acquisition, there are several ways in which learners can potentially benefit by leveraging the rich statistical structure of their input.

Tuesday, January 10

Vivian Sisskin (HESP): The Atypical Disfluency Project

Treatment protocols have been described for stuttering and other fluency disorders including cluttering and language-based disfluency. However, case studies reveal atypical disfluency characterized by final part-word repetition (“rhyme repetition”), or atypical pausing and phrase repetition. Symptoms have been observed among individuals with autism spectrum disorder as well as among neurotypical individuals. Our goal is to better understand features of atypical disfluency, its accompanying behaviors, and its response to traditional stuttering therapy.

Wednesday, January 11

Michelle Morrison (CASL): It’s not easy being green: creative use of noun class prefixation for both semantic and reference tracking purposes

Bantu languages are notorious for their noun class systems. Under traditional analyses, nouns are assigned to a particular class, which is (usually) indicated via a noun class prefix. A noun will then trigger concordial agreement on other elements in a construction, including verbs, adjectives, and demonstratives. Instances where the noun class stem appears with a noun class marker that does not correspond to the noun stem's supposed class are considered to be derivation, with fairly tight limitations on which noun class derivations are possible. Research on the Bantu noun class system has primarily focused on the form of noun class prefixes themselves, agreement patterns, and possible semantic motivation for individual classes. Much less attention has been paid to the functions of the noun class system, particularly with respect to its role within linguistic discourse. While many scholars recognize that noun classes are at least partially semantically motivated and that they play a role in reference tracking, the complexities of the interactions between these two functions and the ways speakers may manipulate the noun class system creatively within discourse has largely been ignored.

In this talk, I focus on Bena (a Bantu language spoken in southern Tanzania) and demonstrate that noun class membership seems to be more fluid than is traditionally thought. In fact, speakers can manipulate the noun class system for a number of different purposes, including reference tracking and participant disambiguation, stylistic and connotative expression, and even as a pragmatic strategy to indicate a shift in character voice. I will also discuss the importance of using different methodologies in linguistic fieldwork, and the complementary nature of elicitation-based strategies with more stimulus-based and corpus-driven approaches.

Thursday, January 12
Robert Dooling (PSYC)
Friday, January 13

Jan R. Edwards (HESP): Dialect mismatch and its implications for academic achievement

The single most important problem in public education in the United States today is the “achievement gap”: the well-documented observation that children from low-socioeconomic status (SES) families perform less well academically than children from middle-SES families. Many children from low-SES families speak a non-mainstream dialect of English, while the language of instruction is Mainstream American English. Dialect mismatch is an often-ignored factor that may contribute to the achievement gap, although recent research suggests that it may play a role (e.g., Patton Terry & Connor, 2012, Patton Terry et al., 2012).  For example, African American children from low-SES families generally speak African American English (AAE). The substantial phonological, morphosyntactic, and pragmatic differences between SAE and AAE may hinder academic progress, interfering with young AAE speakers’ ability to benefit from school experiences. This talk will discuss two studies related to dialect mismatch. Study 1 examines the impact of dialect mismatch on the awareness and comprehension of MAE by AAE-speaking children from low-SES families.  Study 2 describes a pilot intervention program to ameliorate the effects of dialect mismatch. Children from two pre-kindergarten classrooms participated in this program: one classroom received a focused curriculum that highlighted differences between “home” and “school” talk, while the other classroom received a control intervention that focused on mindfulness.
Tuesday, January 17

Bill Idsardi (LING, UMD) and Jeff Heinz (LING, U Delaware): Personal Perspectives on Computational Linguistics

In this lunch talk we will survey some aspects of computational linguistics, but from a personal perspective. This will mainly consist of drawing distinctions between various practices in computational linguistics (especially computational phonology) along the following dimensions:

  1. Data vs. simulation vs. proofs
  2. Choice of model/benchmark/criteria for complexity, learning, ...
  3. Knife-edge between triviality and impossibility
  4. Tradeoffs between representations and computational power
  5. Mismatch between abstract models and the theoretical ontologies


Wednesday, January 18

Vessela Valiavitcharska (ENGL): Figures of Speech as Structures of Inference in Medieval Rhetorical Instruction

The medieval Byzantine rhetorical curriculum, which followed the traditional arrangement of subjects known in the west as “the trivium” and the “the quadrivium,” emphasized language training, aiming at fluent expression on every level: from sound and word  to argument and large idea. The Byzantine rhetoricians did not believe in a strict duality of form and content, and taught style as an instrument of generating arguments. This talk will focus on the Byzantine rhetoricians’ explanation and practice of certain rhetorical figures: those which were believed most appropriate for agonistic judicial oratory. The figures are: circle,  period, and strongylon; in the rhetoric manuscripts they are consistently diagrammed with geometrical figures surrounded by text. The division and positioning of the text and its relation to the graphics indicate the type of inference each figure induces: reciprocity, equivalence/identity, incompatibility/contrariness, or deduction. What this suggests is that the Byzantine teachers were well aware of the potential of the rhetoric figures to act as structures of inference, and, rather than regarding them as mere embellishments, they taught them as an integral part of informal argumentation.

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