January 29, 2024

Linguistics Research Spotlight: Sylvia Cho

Analyzing Voice

To celebrate Speech & Hearing Month, we asked PhD student Sylvia Cho to tell us more about her dissertation research, which focuses on voice quality of multilingual speakers.       

“In broad terms, I’m looking at acoustic features that are specific to a speaker versus specific to a language. For example, if a multilingual speaker were to speak in different languages, what part of the speech signal, or what characteristics of their speech would be more specific to language, and which features stay consistent? I’m also looking at the influence of heritage language. Does a heritage speaker do things that are different when they participate in the ongoing Canadian sound changes? What are the influences of the languages that we are exposed to at home?”

Statistics Canada reports that linguistic diversity is on the rise, with 19.4% of Canadians speaking more than one language at home. In the Vancouver area, the three most-reported immigrant mother tongues are Cantonese, Mandarin and Punjabi. Sylvia has collected data predominantly from Korean-English bilingual speakers, as well as from Cantonese-, Mandarin-and Japanese-English bilingual speakers, and is hoping to collect data from speakers of additional languages in the future, particularly Punjabi and Canadian French.

While Sylvia’s earlier research focused on the production of bilingual speech, she is currently studying the perception of voice. “I’m most interested in whether voice quality changes, depending on the language spoken and the speech style,” says Sylvia. “When you think you are hearing the same speaker, what bundle of acoustic features stay consistent?” Sylvia explained that voice is a relatively understudied area in linguistics and has made some unexpected findings. “Surprisingly, the pilot study results show that speech style differences (spontaneous vs. read speech) seem to be just as influential on perception of voice as language.”

Sylvia is a Research Assistant in the Language and Brain Lab. Since starting her PhD program, she has also been an Instructor and Teaching Assistant for numerous Linguistics courses. Having gotten to know hundreds of students and watch their careers take shape, she has discovered linguistics to be a thriving field. “A lot of students don’t see linguistics as being directly related to jobs, but it is! I’ve seen students become audiologists, speech pathologists, language teachers, researchers, health practitioners, even data analysts. It’s such an interesting field, with so many different direct and indirect applications.”

For students who are new to the study of linguistics, Sylvia recommends LING 100, LING 160, LING 190, LING 220, and LING 280: “Those are all great courses that help you see and taste what linguistic research is like.” To find out more, visit the Undergraduate Program in Linguistics.