Our Research

CU CampusThe Department sees linguistics as one member of a constellation of disciplines that use empirical methods to explore properties of human cognition, behavior, culture and socialization. For this reason, its faculty work closely with language researchers in the Institute of Cognitive Science, the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences (SLHS). A snapshot of ongoing research programs in the Department will suffice to suggest the breadth and cross-disciplinary nature of our work.

Rich natural-language data, both collected from experimental subjects and mined from electronic databases of speech, provide the basis of many of the research programs in the Department. Professor Bhuvana Narasimhan uses experimental methods to explore children's early descriptions of events and objects in a variety of languages—including Hindi, Tamil, German and English—in order to examine those areas in which children's semantic representations of grammatically relevant distinctions (for example, the distinction between events and states and the distinction between old and new information) differ from those of adults. Professor Martha Palmer, together with allied researchers at the Center for Computational Language and Education Research (CLEAR), uses phonetic, phonological, syntactic, semantic and discourse properties of language to develop natural language processing tools that answer questions, give the ‘gist’ of a news article, search the web, automatically translate text and classify people’s speech. Professor Barbara Fox looks at how speakers manage the real-time complexities of talking: as head of multi-site research project sponsored by the National Science Foundation, she examines the strategies that speakers of a variety of languages use to ‘repair’ their own defective speech productions. Professor Laura Michaelis-Cummings uses conversational speech to study how speakers adapt their grammatical routines to solve common communicative problems (e.g., signaling a topic shift), how they creatively extend the combinatoric potentials of words and how they vary their intonational and grammatical forms according to perceived requirements of the context. Professor Rebecca Scarborough performs experiments involving speech perception and production in order to determine how a word's representation (e.g., its frequency or its association with another word) affects its pronunciation and perceivability, how speakers adjust their productions acoustically and phonetically to ensure intelligibility in high-noise environments and how intonational patterns vary across languages.

The focus on spoken language is also present in the Department’s innovative descriptive and theoretical work on endangered and poorly described languages. These efforts include Professor Zygmunt Frajzyngier’s research into the emergence of grammatical structures in understudied, and frequently endangered, languages of Chad and Cameroon. In collaboration with researchers in Africa, Europe and the US, including CU Linguistics Research Professor Erin Shay, Prof. Frajzyngier documents the grammatical systems of a wide variety of Afroasiatic and Chadic languages and uses these findings to model the evolution of grammatical structures and the interface between meaning and grammatical form. Additional language-description projects are being conducted under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the West (CSILW), directed by Professors Andrew Cowell and David Rood. CSILW members work with Native American groups to foster the survival of threatened and dying languages of the Plains and Southwest, including Wichita, Arapaho and Lakhota.

The important role of language in the construction and maintenance of ethnic and social identity is also highlighted by research on narrative performance and gender identity performed by Professor Kira Hall. She has recently founded the interdisciplinary program in Culture, Language and Social Practice (CLASP), which will grant MA- and PhD-level certificates and promote synergy among research projects being conducted across the CU campus in a wide variety of analytic traditions, including linguistic anthropology, narrative studies, philosophy of language and socially oriented discourse analysis.

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