Lydia Castro's MA story

October 01, 2022

How did you end up in linguistics and what was the journey like for you?

I actually started out in physics in my undergrad. But I found myself pretty disheartened with the hostile/hyper-competitive culture of STEM programs, and was looking to change my course of study. I’ve always loved languages, so between that and an absolutely stellar intro linguistics course, switching over to linguistics just made sense.

What was your experience like at SFU?

It was interesting. I really didn’t know what to expect from a graduate program (especially as a disabled student), so it was all quite new (and at times overwhelming!). SFU also has a pretty different student culture from my undergraduate university, so in the beginning it was difficult for me to figure out how to find community. But being in labs and getting involved with the TSSU and GSS were all really great ways to meet other graduate students/community within the university setting, and helped me feel a lot more grounded/supported.

Tell us what your thesis topic is about and what got you interested in the topic.

My thesis is about handshape markedness in American Sign Language, and how that might affect second language learning. I didn’t have a very clear idea for my thesis when I first started. I’d thought I was going to focus more on phonetics actually. But talking things through with my supervisor and doing a lot of reading helped me to ultimately settle on my thesis topic.

What was the most exciting or interesting part of doing your M.A.?

Probably the people I got to meet/interact with. Linguistics is such a fun and varied field, and so are the people within it. Throughout my M.A., I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and learn from all sorts of colleagues who are delightful, quirky, sharp-whitted individuals. Definitely a highlight for me.

What are your plans now that you have completed your M.A.?

My immediate plans are to rest and recuperate from school, but then I’m looking forward to staying in Canada for the long term and continuing to connect with community.

Do you have any advice or tips for undergrads who are thinking to go into an M.A. program or for graduate students who are currently in the program?

For undergrads considering an M.A. program, I’d say my biggest piece of advice is that there’s no rush. It’s ok to take a year or two between your bachelor’s and grad school. I went right into my M.A. program from my bachelor’s and I was so burnt out, it made the program much more difficult than it needed to be. Also, even if you end up changing your idea later, it’s good to start your grad program with a clear idea of what you want to study — the set-up and pacing of graduate school is so different from undergraduate study, and it’s a very good idea to go into it with a clear starting point.

For graduate students already in the program, I’d say my two biggest pieces of advice are having a supervisor that you feel safe/supported with, and intentionally reserving time for yourself/connecting with people. Having a supervisor that you trust and can be fully honest with is huge, and makes such a massive difference in your experience/well-being. It’s also so important to find ways to connect with folks/build friendships, and take that space to nourish yourself as a human being (versus as just a student).


Lydia Castro's MA Thesis

Handshape markedness in American sign language:


Phonological markedness in sign languages, and particularly handshape markedness, is an area of study that is relatively new. Corpus and participant studies have provided some information about specific subsets of handshapes, and the prevalence of specific handshapes cross-linguistically, though literature is sparser when looking at other aspects of markedness. Williams and Newman (2016) showed that markedness and visual saliency (specifically sonority) interact to affect word learning. This study is a partial replication focusing on the interaction of markedness and location contrasts. Sign-naïve hearing participants learned a series of nonsense signed words paired with images, with accuracy scores used to measure learning. The pseudowords contained various marked and unmarked handshapes, and were also varied by location (balancing for sonority). No significant effect of handshape markedness on response accuracy was found; however, participant accuracy was significantly affected by whether the target and competitor words were articulated in the same location.