Nolan Holley ’22

Boston University, Department of Linguistics, Phonetics, Acquisition & Multilingualism Lab

This summer, I worked as a research assistant in linguistics with the Phonetics, Acquisition and Multilingualism Lab at Boston University. The lab focuses on the topics that make up its name and the work of the lab is to study “the development of speech production and perception in multiple languages over an individual’s lifespan.”

I spent the vast majority of the summer working on a language preservation project. The goal of the project was to continue the documentation of Southeastern Pomo, a Native American language spoken in California. Southeastern Pomo is severely endangered, with only one remaining native speaker, who was the speaker in all of the recordings that I worked with over the course of the summer. Linguists from Berkeley have been documenting the language for quite some time now, and so the professor in charge of the project shared a Google Drive folder with me that contained resources such as handwritten notes from 2007, and a roughly 80-page grammar from the 1970s. I referenced these sources throughout the internship.

My job was to transcribe recordings that had been made around 2006 and 2007. Of course, there was a bit of a learning curve since I had no familiarity with Southeastern Pomo. My supervisor gave me, and the other interns working on the project, transcriptions to double-check before moving on to doing our own original transcriptions. This way, we were able to gain a passing familiarity with the language’s grammar, and get comfortable with its sound system. This knowledge was crucial to the transcriptions because we also provided translations and commentary on what the speaker was saying. Sometimes I would encounter a word form that did not seem to match the translation that the linguists were looking for, or something did not make sense in the field notes, and it was important to be able to recognize these things.

I also learned a great deal about phonetics. Naturally, I relied primarily on my hearing for the transcription, but I also looked at the shape of the sound waves, and something called a “spectrogram,” which shows frequency and loudness in a relatively intuitive visual way. Southeastern Pomo has a couple of sounds which can be very difficult to distinguish, so these visual clues were extremely helpful. In doing this, I learned a lot about how sounds are produced, as well as how to use the speech analysis software Praat.

And I learned a lot about what it is like to actually do linguistics. While I enjoyed this project, I would like to find out more about subfields of linguistics that are more mathematical or computational. I feel that something like that would be a slightly better fit for me, given the style of problem-solving that I enjoy, and the fact that I am a math major.

I feel very fortunate to have had this experience this summer and thank the Kraft Family for their generosity and the ’68 Center for Career Exploration for their guidance during the unique summer.