Stacey Jacobson was not a conventional graduate school applicant. Five years after completing her master’s degree in California, she was splitting duties as a part-time instructor between The University of Alabama’s Department of English and the English Language Institute. While hustling between classes, she noticed a flyer calling for submissions to what is now called The University of Alabama Languages Conference.
“I hadn’t done anything with my thesis since I wrote it. It was just sitting there, so I thought, ‘Why not?’” said Stacey. Asking that question drives much of Stacey’s decision-making and opens new opportunities for her to step into.
She presented her research, “Orthographic Influences of Spanish loans on English,” and her ongoing curiosity to understand how what is written (orthographic) is what a speaker sees but not necessarily what they say. A speaker’s native language affects their perception of what they hear and how they say something they haven’t encountered before. Stacey’s work resonated with a couple of professors who immediately approached her afterwards. They wanted to find her a place in the Department of Modern Languages as a doctoral candidate. Asking herself “why not?” once again, Stacey enrolled the next semester.
Continuing her graduate research as a phoneticist who works with acoustics, Stacey is a modern day Professor Henry Higgins (“My Fair Lady”), using computerized representations of sound. Picture the visual wave a phone shows when listening to identify a song. This is a spectrogram – demonstrating vowels as bursts at the top of a wave and consonants as lows of the wave. Most researchers and educators focus on the vowel bursts, but Stacey focuses on the lows, measuring the puffs of air for consonants in English versus Spanish.
Why do consonant sounds matter?
As an educator, Stacey works with learners of a new language every day and encounters how their native language gets in the way. Most specifically, she is looking at the grapheme/phoneme mismatch (what is seen vs. what is said) with the letter “h” in Spanish, where it is not pronounced, as compared to English, where it is almost always pronounced.
She’s using a mobile phone app with voice recognition technology to provide immediate feedback to her students, and it, too, ignores the consonants. Consonants are where the accents fall in Spanish, so for a Spanish teacher, it is particularly important that the emerging technology used by students understands computerized speech.
Stacey is learning Python code to conduct her research and find a way to address the issue. By asking “why not” again, she’s opening the door for future professional work as a computational linguist, a field she had not considered before. And she’s considering it with the support of her faculty. She credits the graduate professors for their intentionality to connect with students and have a sincere interest in their job placement and interview preparation.
Stacey expects to complete her studies in 2020, earning a doctoral degree in romance languages, specifically Spanish and linguistics, and serves as an adviser and chair for The University of Alabama Languages Conference – the same conference which opened this door to reinvented beginnings at UA.
Your research matters at The University of Alabama. Attend UA’s Three Minute Thesis competition on November 11, 2019 to learn more about the impressive research our graduate students are leading.
Are you ready to find your place at UA? Apply today at graduate.ua.edu/prospective-students/apply-now/.
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