Rising Stars: Meet Sean Foley!

Dear Linguist List Readers,

For this week’s rising star we have Sean Foley who is a 2nd year MA student making waves in the linguistics department at UNC Chapel Hill. According to his professors, when he entered the program he already had the level of fieldwork experience and participation in professional activities expected of a PhD student. Sean recently presented a paper on “The acoustics of apical vowels in two endangered Ngwi languages” at the annual meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society and another on “naruo: an endangered Ngwi language spoken in Yunnan, China” at the International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics. This is all on top of the fact that he’s shown the ability to learn and apply new theoretical concepts in his studies very quickly. As usual, Sean’s list of accomplishments is too long for this preamble so here is his piece…


There are a number of areas within linguistics that I am particularly excited about. First, as once stated by linguist Mark Liberman, we are in the midst of the “golden age of speech and language science”. Advances in tools such as forced aligners, automatic phonetic measurement, and computational modelling currently allow speech scientists the ability to more easily parse through large speech corpora and derive acoustic measurements. These emerging technologies have led to the birth of what is being termed “corpus phonetics”, which, as a young subfield of linguistics, has the potential to lead to major advancements in the phonetics-phonology interface and phonetic/phonological theory in general.

Second, and along the same lines, corpus phonetics and advances in machine learning and natural language processing are beginning to form a bridge to one of the great challenges facing the field of linguistics – language endangerment. Documentation of the world’s linguistic diversity is undoubtedly urgent, considering that a majority of the world’s languages are endangered and may no longer be spoken in the next 50 years. Applying these computational  methods to language documentation has the tremendous potential to not only expedite the documentation process but to also bring more endangered languages into the digital realm. Furthermore, one linguist recently describe to me how he was using deep learning and automatic speech recognition (ASR) to aid in language documentation. What’s fascinating is that, as I understand it, this technology cannot only support these languages, but these languages can in turn aid in the development of ASR technology that has mainly been trained on majority languages.

Third, in connection to language documentation, an exciting development is how the laboratory phonology movement is starting to branch out into the field. More and more linguists have begun taking portable ultrasound machines into the field to get articulatory data on under documented languages, while others have begun to adapt speech perception experiments for the field. Couple these innovations with the areas above and what the future holds is widely  accessible speech corpora from a diverse array of languages, which include potentially not only acoustic data, but also articulatory data. As an aspiring phonetician, the three areas discussed  above are absolutely thrilling developments.

Personally, my plan is to continue my studies and enter a PhD program in linguistics. During this time, my goal is to combine laboratory phonology and fieldwork, with the premise that the description of endangered languages and phonological/phonetic theory inform one another. My hope is that such work can not only combat language endangerment, but can lead to progress in phonetic/phonological theory, while also leading to advancements in speech science technology.


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