Student Emily Knick with linguistics research equipment.

Probing the Mysteries of Language

Through an independent research study of her own design, Emily Knick ‘23 is investigating how languages evolve and what such changes can teach us about how the brain produces and perceives language.

At UMass Amherst, Emily Knick ‘23 discovered a passion for something that is a fundamental part of the human experience, yet most of us rarely think much about: language.

“We wake up every day and go around talking to each other, yet there’s so much we don’t understand about how we actually do it,” she said. “There’s a whole world out there to explore.”

Knick took a somewhat circuitous route to studying linguistics. Originally from Richmond, Va., she enrolled in a biology program at a community college and began taking classes in Japanese for fun, inspired by her love of Japanese films. She found herself fascinated by the linguistic aspects of learning a new language, and wanted to delve deeper. She transferred to UMass Amherst as a first-year student largely because of the stellar reputation of its Department of Linguistics: consistently ranked second in the world after MIT.

At UMass, Knick has been able to combine her dual interests in Japanese and linguistics in an independent research project that investigates a change taking place in the pronunciation of certain consonants in Tokyo Japanese, a dialect spoken by those who live or were raised in Tokyo. Knick approached her professor, John Kingston, with the idea for the research project, and he agreed to advise her.

According to Kingston, the majority of linguistics undergraduates get some exposure to research, whether through instruction in a required course on how to design and carry out a research project, working as research assistants in faculty labs, or conducting independent research guided by faculty, like Knick.

“By doing research as undergrads, our students get to explore whether they are interested in continuing on in research, which means potentially applying to graduate school—typically in linguistics, but also in computer science and other fields,” said Kristine Yu, associate professor, who also advises Knick. “They get a sense of the challenges and whether it’s something they love doing, and it gives them a piece of work to show when they apply to graduate school.”

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Research isn’t about knowing everything; research is about not knowing things and wanting to find out the answer.

Emily Knick '23

Knick’s interest in her research topic grew out of a UMass course she took on phonetics.

“I became interested in how people hear consonants. For example, if I say the words ‘pot’ and ‘bot,’ a listener can distinguish the meaning of each word because of the way they hear the ‘p’ and the ‘b’ sounds,” she explained. “In different languages, different acoustic properties are varied in order to distinguish between consonant sounds.”

Knick read about a change that had been reported in the pronunciation of a type of consonant known as “plosives” in Tokyo Japanese, beginning around the 2010s. Plosives are consonants that “completely stop the air” when spoken, such as the sounds made by the letters P, T, K, B, D, and G. Traditionally, when the B, D, and G sounds are produced in Japanese, the speaker’s vocal cords vibrate in such a way that these sounds are differentiated from P, T, and K sounds. But with the recent change, there is less vibration, and the sounds are much closer to one another. Yet, Knick said, “Listeners don’t seem to have trouble distinguishing them, which I find very strange!”

Knick designed a two-part study to investigate this phenomenon. She recorded speech from Tokyo Japanese-speaking participants of various ages and sexes, both in Japan and currently living in the United States. Participants were asked to read aloud 112 stimuli sentences that included a word beginning with a plosive consonant, and to say the word on its own. Knick then analyzed the high-quality voice recordings using a linguistics software called Praat, which produces visual representations of speech. This first part of the study, which she completed during her junior year, confirmed the previously documented pronunciation change, both at the sentence and word level. The change appears to be led by younger speakers, and females in particular.

Linguistics spectogram
A visual representation of speech sound collected as part of Knick's study, showing a younger speaker's production of a /d/. It is missing the vocal fold vibration, or "voicing," that is apparent in the visual representation of an older speaker's production of /d/.

“Younger speakers are producing sounds with less of the vocal fold vibration, also known as pre-voicing, and are instead using a short little lag, or period of noise,” Knick said.

Praising Knick’s innovative research study, Kingston said, “It gets at fundamental questions: What is triggering these changes? Who is leading the changes? Who is following? We don’t have good ideas yet about why language changes at the moment it does. Studying this case helps us understand these questions better.”

Next, Knick plans to conduct a perception study to investigate how people hear the sound change.

While studying the evolution of language is interesting in and of itself, Knick said, her study gets at a much larger question.

“I’m fascinated by how the brain processes language. A lot of past psycholinguistic work assumes that the way the mind tells the mouth how to produce sounds is the reverse of how sounds are perceived. Yet, the way these two processes interact and whether or not this assumption is correct is still unknown. A good way to investigate this is through sound changes, as I’m doing in my research. We hope this can provide insight into whether and how production and perception interact with each other as mechanisms in the brain.”

Knick presented her preliminary findings at the Massachusetts Undergraduate Research Conference (MassURC) and at an undergraduate research presentation session hosted by the Linguistics department. In the future, she plans to submit it for publication in an academic journal.

Beyond deepening her understanding of linguistic concepts and developing new skills in statistics, programming, and encoding, Knick said conducting research has allowed her to hone many other abilities, including organization, clear communication of academic concepts to diverse audiences, and speaking her second language, Japanese, in a real-world context. In addition, she said, “I’ve had to become more flexible and accept that experiments never go perfectly. This has extended into many other areas in my life!”

For the future, Knick is exploring pursuing a PhD in linguistics or psychology/cognitive science to study speech perception and neurolinguistics, or working in the field of data science—another skill set she developed through research.

She advised any undergraduate who is considering doing research to reach out to their professors, even if they don’t see an open research position listed. “The worst they can do is say no, but you’d be surprised how often they say yes,” she said.

In addition, Knick said, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Research isn’t about knowing everything; research is about not knowing things and wanting to find out the answer."

This story was originally published in July 2022.