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Anastasia Chobany

Anastasia Chobany '18

As a double major in Linguistics and Communication Disorders, Anastasia Chobany inhabits a unique academic position at UMass. She discusses her roots in the College of Humanities & Fine Arts, multilingualism at home and beyond, and her recent work with amphibian hearing structures.

Why did you first decide to pursue Linguistics?

Like a lot of my classmates, it took me a long time to realize that the field of Linguistics even existed. I first learned about it during a lesson in my high school psychology class, when we learned about a girl named Genie, who spent the first thirteen years of her life locked away in a basement and was never exposed to language. When she was finally rescued, people spent years trying to teach her how to speak, but even though she eventually learned some words and phrases, she could never fully acquire the English grammar or reach native-like proficiency. This lesson fascinated me. Growing up bilingual and studying foreign languages later on, I knew that learning a new language became more difficult at an older age, but I never considered that it was the same for a first. I never knew that there was a critical period for learning language, or that there were precise, complex processes unconsciously existing in every child's mind to facilitate that acquisition, or that there was a difference between simply memorizing words and the ability to communicate in a socially agreed-upon grammar. This was the first time I discovered that there was an entire field on the science of language, and I was hooked. It was like I was discovering something hiding all along in plain sight. I was the first person from my high school to ever attend UMass, and I came for our Linguistics program.

Where would you say your current interests fall: reception, perception, or production of language?

What I love the most about this entire phenomenon of communication is how tied together every component of it is. Communicating an idea between one person and another requires a chain of so many processes, from formulating an idea into words to the motor production of speech, to the physics of sound propagation, to the ability of our ears to hear and transmit auditory signals to our brains. While I was completing my Linguistics major, I was focused on the system of language itself and was particularly interested in my classes on language acquisition. Currently though, my research focuses on understanding the physiological processes within the auditory system, specifically the part after sound gets in our ears but before it gets to our brain. So I'd say that would fall under “reception of language.” But really, as much as I love everything to do with ears, no single component of communication could exist the same way without the other, and I’m in endless awe over it.  

Do you remember what led you to pursue a second major in Communication Disorders, or did you just play it by ear?

I took an Intro to Communication Disorders class my first semester of college. My summer NSO orientation leader was a Linguistics and Communication Disorders double major and encouraged me to check it out, and I’m so grateful that she did. Coming into the class, I'd never met another speech therapist or audiologist, or even known someone who had a communication disorder. As the semester went on I realized how tied together the field was to the Linguistics classes I was taking and it made me think about language in yet another way. I was learning about all these components of human language and communication, but also realizing that there are variations in people's abilities and that for many individuals something can go awry along that chain of communication.

Linguistics teaches skills that can be applied to a larger scale of helping others with various communication disorders. Understanding typical speech and language development, for example, is so important for diagnosing and treating a child who could have a language disorder. In aphasia, which is an impairment that happens when the language centers of the brain are damaged, knowledge of syntax and other linguistic processes can provide additional insight for testing and treatment. While I was shadowing speech therapists during an internship at the NYU Langone Medical Center last summer, I saw how patients who spoke a language other than English received a very different quality of therapy, even with excellent translators present. We need to remember that monolingualism is not the norm. I want to always look at the work I do through a multilingual lens, and to see how speakers of different languages and cultures can be affected by practices designed for monolingual English speakers. This is another way that Communication Disorders intersects with Linguistics.

How does your current research engage you scientifically?

In a Communications Disorders class I took recently, I learned about how our inner ears are full of thousands of hair cells that fire signals to our brains in response to sounds. The mechanisms of this transmission are so intricate and so brilliantly faithful to any sort of sound stimulation, and so precise compared to any other sensory system in our bodies. I told Dr. Freyman, my hearing science professor, that I wanted to learn more about all of this, and he told me that there was actually a lab on campus studying inner ear hair cells and auditory processing in bullfrogs.

When I started seeing language as this immensely complex and innate human function, I wanted to learn more and more about the small pieces that made it up, leading me to study language as a science through linguistics. Getting into the biology of hearing felt really similar to this. The more I learned about the processes and implications of hearing, the more I wanted to learn the science of all the smallest components behind it, to see how the smallest components of a system allow it to function as a whole.

There was definitely some culture shock for me coming into a biology lab with sort of an unconventional background. I was worried at first about my lack of experience in the typical “hard sciences,” which was apparently clear to everyone as I kept referring to forceps as “tweezers” and fumbled with how to use a microscope. But I think passion goes a long way, and with putting in some extra time outside of lab I was more than capable of keeping up. It continues to be the most challenging work I do, but I love every moment and feel so fortunate to be a part of it.

And how does it engage you humanistically?

Understanding the effects of hearing on a greater, human level of communication gives me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the microscopic, cell-level work we do. I hope to continue working with others in my lab towards understanding ‘the bigger picture” of the human impact our science can have.

I've heard so many students in humanities say that they aren't a "science person." But I don't think there's as sharp of a divide between the sciences and humanities, and we’re not required to choose between one or the other. In linguistics, we might not use chemicals or reagents in our work, but we have sounds and words and we can put them together into equations of their own and analyze them in ways that deduce something about the way language works. Anyone who has looked in a Linguistic major's notebook and seen how a syntax tree for a single sentence can take up an entire page, and its semantic proof another five, can see that we don't take our methodology lightly. We perform experiments, and we follow the scientific method. We're full of questions about the world around us and we can formulate hypotheses based on what we observe and learn. And it's not just the linguists in HFA who do this. So, I think the ability to call myself a researcher and even a scientist is actually something I took from the humanities.

Looking ahead, where do you hope your studies will take you?

Even though I’ve journeyed through a few different departments at UMass, I’ve always been involved in researching some level of that chain of communication. I’d love to continue doing research after I graduate and to keep looking at the auditory system specifically. There’s a lot I still want to learn about the biology and electrophysiology behind it, which is all still so new to me, but I’m excited to see how far I can go with it. I hope to maintain a multidisciplinary approach to my work and bridge together those microscopic, biologic components of communication with the larger scale implications on people's day to day lives.