Alumnae honoured

One of our most distinguished alumnae is Professor Jen Hay who studied Linguistics at Victoria where she was taught by Emeritus Professors Janet Holmes and Laurie Bauer, among others.

2015 has been an extraordinarily successful year for Jen, by any standards. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, awarded a Marsden grant of $767,000 as Principal Investigator of a project entitled “Statistical learning with and without a lexicon” (abstract below), as well as being awarded the University of Canterbury’s 2015 Research Medal (see video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydnN0PowOmc), and a prestigious James Cook Fellowship for her research. Not surprisingly, she was also a finalist in the 2015 Women of Influence awards in the Innovation category.

Jen’s illustrious career began with undergraduate course in Linguistics in the 1990s. She says “What started as just a random course in my BA, sparked a lifetime passion.  Victoria was where I discovered and fell in love with Linguistics, and where I found important mentors who inspired and guided me, and who continue to do so today.”

She went on to complete a first class Honours degree in Linguistics and a Masters thesis with distinction on the topic of linguistic humour, which was extraordinarily innovative. She then proceeded to Northwestern University in the USA to complete her PhD and develop lasting academic relationships with significant researchers in the areas of morphology and sociophonetics.

Jen is currently Professor of Linguistics at the University of Canterbury and Director of the New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour, a multi-disciplinary centre dedicated to the study of human language. Her research involves ways investigating how linguistic systems are represented in the mind and the factors that contribute to language change over time. Over the last five years she has held a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship to further her sociophonetics research by exploring episodic word memory – asking what the range of environments (social, physical, contextual) in which we encounter a word does to the way we hear, use and pronounce that word.

Jen is also a specialist in the study of New Zealand English, and the principal investigator of the Origins of New Zealand English project (ONZE). In related research, she has been at the forefront of exciting work that considers the relationships between human language processing and language variation and change. Collaborative work with Paul Warren, for instance, has looked at how the production and perception of changes-in-progress such as the merger of the ‘ear’ and ‘air’ vowels in New Zealand English are affected by social variables such as the age, gender and socio-economic status of both speakers and hearers.

Janet Holmes comments “Jen was an inspiration for her fellow students in our largest ever Honours class in Linguistics in the 1990s, and she is now a great role model for young New Zealand linguists. She has been a highly motivating mentor for many students over the past decade. It has been wonderful seeing her at conferences supporting and inspiring a large clutch of enthusiastic young people interested in sociophonetics. And her innovative and interdisciplinary research in the Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour is internationally admired”.

Marsden project abstract (2016-2018)

Statistical Learning with and without a Lexicon

Native speakers of a language display a vast amount of statistical knowledge. For example, they know where different sounds tend to occur in their language, and the relative likelihood of particular sounds occurring together in combination. This knowledge is believed to be drawn from the speaker’s vocabulary – their lexicon. However speakers of a language also possess knowledge about the statistical properties of sounds in running speech, which they use to segment the speech stream into words. The relationship between knowledge of lexical statistics (generated from the lexicon) and pre-lexical statistics (generated from running speech) is not understood. What is the nature of learning that takes place when you do, or don’t have a lexicon?

New Zealand provides a unique testing-ground for this question. Many New Zealanders have regular exposure to Māori, but do not know many words. This enables us to study pre-lexical statistical learning in considerable depth. We will document the statistical properties of Māori sound structure. Then, using our established experimental architecture to present experiments in the form of computer games, we will investigate what knowledge of these properties non-Māori-speaking New Zealanders actually have.

John Macalister

John Macalister’s research interests include second language reading and writing, issues in language learning and New Zealand English. He teaches courses in language teaching methodology (reading and writing), and curriculum design.

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