This Spring, students in SPAN 376 (Phonetics and Phonology of Spanish) investigated the differences between native and non-native competence in Spanish by doing a phonetic analysis of speech samples. First, they recorded two Spanish words of their choice pronounced by a native speaker of Spanish and also by themselves. Then, with the help of a Graduate Research Consultant, they analyzed the samples using Praat, an open-source software for acoustic analysis. In this class, I encourage students to gain hands-on experience of phonetic analysis because this allows them both to grasp the linguistic concepts and to connect academic training with their real-life experiences. I want them to use the tools provided in class to gain a better understanding of their own experience acquiring a second language (in this case, Spanish) and of the experiences of non-native speakers of English around them. They presented the results of this class project at the OUR Celebration in the form of 4 joint posters.* I fully enjoyed the enthusiasm they put in this project and the shared sense of discovery.
I decided to find out more about the individual experiences of the students, who have kindly agreed to give some feedback about their research project. Here is their perspective in the first person:
“I really liked completing this project for our class. I had never learned anything about linguistics, phonemes, VOT, all of it was completely new to me and I found it all fascinating. I have done research before. It was similar to this project because it was also a class project, but it was comparing heart rate levels when subjected to different kinds of music: in essence a completely different kind of project. I don’t think I would have ever learned or understood voice onset time (VOT) if we had not done this research project. That knowledge has helped me try to better my pronunciation and obtain better fluency of the Spanish language.” (Nicolas Merritt, Exercise and Sports Science and Hispanic Linguistics)
“I really enjoyed this project and found it very interesting. This being my first time researching, I not only enjoyed seeing class concepts realized in everyday life, but I also learned a lot about the researching process. It was very neat to see exactly how, or with what specific sounds, English speakers differ from native Spanish speakers in order to learn how to improve our pronunciation; however, it was also very interesting to hear and see the various dialectal differences among native Spanish speakers for the various sounds we discussed in class. While we learned a lot during lecture, this research was a very important part of the class as it allowed us to actually go out into the community and study the Spanish language spoken around us, hearing the various phonetic and phonological concepts learned in class and gaining a better understanding of how to improve our own pronunciation of the Spanish language. I had never done such an in-depth pronunciation comparison with software such as Praat, but based on this experience, I plan to continue using this software to study the Spanish language and improve my pronunciation.” (Rachel Cianfichi, Romance Languages and Communication Studies)
“Before the OUR project, I had done research before, but not in such a hands-on way. In other classes I have taken that had a research component, we did all of the research individually, without collaborating with other students. This research was carried out in such a way that we searched for scholarly journal articles to support a topic of our choosing and then wrote a final paper summarizing what we discovered about the topic. With the project we did in Spanish 376 for OUR, we got to use a recording software (Praat) that allowed us to record ourselves and a native speaker and make a direct comparison. This is different from other research I had done in that we actively participated in generating data instead of basing our project on someone else’s findings. The poster that I worked on specifically dealt with the difference in the Voice Onset Time (VOT) for native and non-native Spanish speakers when pronouncing voiceless plosive consonants (p, t, and k). We had discussed this in class, noting that the longer VOTs for non-native speakers are due to aspiration, which I learned through the project means openness of the vocal cords. When we discussed this in class, I thought I understood what aspiration meant, but seeing it plainly laid out on our poster with spectrograms to demonstrate the concept helped me understand the concept fully.” (Sam Hodges, Romance Languages and Global Studies)
“This was my first research experience. I enjoyed using Praat to analyze the spectrograms of the different voice samples. Before the project, I wasn’t sure what research in linguistics entailed, but I was pleasantly surprised with our work. I am excited to continue with my linguistics classes and I hope that I will have other opportunities for research in Hispanic linguistics while I’m at Carolina.” (Katie Gutt, Romance Languages and Latin American Studies)
Our GRC, Justin Pinta, offered his perspective as well:
“This was the first time I had been involved in undergraduate research as a GRC and I found it to be an incredibly enriching experience. The students were highly interested in their research and working with them was, I believe, mutually satisfying. They were able to learn the basics of phonetic analysis and I was able to get some valuable experience with regards to teaching and explaining such material. As a Spanish TA during my time here at UNC, I found this class to be a nice change of pace (given its linguistic content) as well as a perfect fit for me personally. I have fortunately been picked to again serve as GRC for this class during summer session 1, and I eagerly look forward to repeating the experience!” (Justin Pinta, M.A. student in Linguistics, GRC)
*Note: One of the group posters received a Best Poster award at the Celebration of Undergraduate Research.