Exploring the Layers of Language

May 2, 2022

By Abe Loomis

For linguist Sejin Oh, the opportunity to pursue postdoctoral research in Paris represents “a dream-come-true moment.”

Sejin Oh (courtesy of Oh)
Sejin Oh (courtesy of Oh)

“The first thing people always ask me when they find out I’m a linguist is, ‘How many languages do you speak,’” Sejin Oh (Ph.D. ’22, Linguistics) says with a laugh. “I tell them, ‘I don’t learn languages. I learn about languages!’ I don’t have to speak a language to study its phenomena.”

Oh specializes in articulatory phonology, a subfield of linguistics that focuses on the physical processes by which speech is produced. On the strength of her dissertation research at the CUNY Graduate Center and her work as a visiting researcher at Yale University, she is now pursuing postdoctoral research at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. The project she has joined, led by French phonetician Cécile Fougeron, looks at how humans coordinate speech sounds and plan speech — questions that are perfectly aligned with Oh’s research interests.

“The timing was great, and the fit was great,” Oh says of the fellowship. “I would have been willing to travel anywhere in the world for this job. And then it happened to be in Paris. So it’s kind of a dream-come-true moment.”

In her dissertation, Oh worked to uncover how the temporal coordination of tongue and lip movements determines the difference between “consonant clusters” and “complex segments”— distinctions that can be very hard for non-native speakers to discern. Establishing this temporal diagnostic, she employed it to examine two different cases of sounds in Russian that had previously been regarded as the same in a certain context. Her work revealed that these sounds behave in a similar way, and yet do exhibit subtle differences, showing significant phonetic traces of the underlying contrast.

Such research, Oh says, can have an array of practical implications. Understanding the physical creation of language more precisely could be used to make AI more adept at understanding human speech, for example, or to provide more precise instruction for human language learners or those in speech therapy.

While Oh finds her scholarship deeply satisfying, she is also quick to point out that pursuing a Ph.D. is an extremely demanding endeavor. 

“First of all,” she says, “the job market is difficult. Anyone considering a Ph.D. should keep in mind that it's not going to be easy. You need to have a good publication record, you need research experience, and you need to work really hard.” 

Finding ways to work efficiently, Oh observes, is critical. One of her favorite methods to motivate herself is to seek out collaboration.

“By collaborating with other people, you learn practical skills — statistics, how to analyze data, and how to conduct research,” Oh says. She also finds that making herself responsible to others helps her avoid procrastination. “I’m such a deadline-driven person,” Oh says, “So I just tell my collaborators, OK, I’ll send you this draft by Friday. And then I do it. Having that peer pressure will make you work more efficiently. You can use your time more efficiently by having multiple projects going on with multiple collaborators.”

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