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Projects & Grants

Current research grants

  • Title: Variability in the voicing contrast across languages and over time: corpus and simulation studies
    Investigator: Morgan Sonderegger
    Duration of grant: 2014-2017
    Granting agency: SSHRC Insight Development Grant
    Project description: This project addresses two longstanding questions about human language: how speech sounds are realized across the  world’s languages, and why languages change over time. Both are related to a fundamental aspect of language, variability. How the "same sound" (a phoneme such as /p/ or /b/) actually sounds, in terms of the speech signal, varies greatly across languages. This project will make progress on the questions of how and why sounds vary across languages and over time, focusing on the case of voiced and voiceless consonants, by scaling up relative to previous work: mapping variability in how these sounds are produced across several languages, using automatic measurement algorithms and datasets adapted from speech technology; and using large-scale computational simulations to explain why the pronunciation of these sounds can change over time. Contributions will be made in three key areas: description of how speech sounds vary across languages, theories of why speech sounds vary over time, and training of students.
  • Title: Variabilité interlinguistique et temporelle dans les contrastes sonores voisés et non-voisés: Une application à grande échelle
    Investigator: Morgan Sonderegger
    Duration of grant: 2014-2017
    Granting agency: FRQSC Établissement de Nouveaux professeurs-chercheurs
    Project description: La variabilité est un aspect fondamental de la langue. Un même "son" (un phonème tel /p/), varie grandement en termes de signal sonore d'une lange à l'autre. Dans une langue, la production des sons relève d'un système complexe de plusieurs indices acoustiques. Cependant, comme la collecte et l'annotation de données sont coûteuses et prenantes, nous sommes loin d'être en mesure d'expliquer comment la prononciation d’un phonème varie d'une langue à l'autre. Même à l'intérieur d'une communauté, la prononciation des sons varie aussi avec le temps. Beaucoup d’études décrivent la trajectoire de changements de certains sons et tentent d'expliquer les raisons de ces changements. Depuis peu, il est maintenant possible de tester les explications proposées en utilisant des simulations informatiques de l'évolution de la langue à l'intérieur d'une communauté. Le projet proposé vise à mieux comprendre pourquoi les sons varient d'une langue à l'autre et avec le temps, portant une attention particulière aux consonnes voisées et non-voisées. Le projet ajoutera donc aux études antérieures: décrivant la variabilité de la production de ces sons dans plusieurs langues, utilisant des algorithmes de mesure automatiques et des bases de données adaptées à la reconnaissance automatique de la parole ainsi que des simulations informatiques à grande échelle afin d'expliquer la raison pour laquelle la prononciation de ces sons changent avec le temps. Le projet contribuera particulièrement à la description des variations en production des sons d'une langue à l'autre, et aux théories ayant pour but d'expliquer pourquoi et comment les sons varient avec le temps.

  • Title: Language Modelling Laboratory
    Investigator: Morgan Sonderegger
    Duration of grant: 2013-2018
    Granting agency: CFI John R. Evans Leaders Fund
    Project description: Funding to create the Montreal Language Modeling Laboratory in the Department of Linguistics, for computational and empirical investigation of speech sounds. Research in the lab will address how and why the sounds of a language vary over time and across languages, by “scaling up” relative to previous work: using large datasets, large-scale computational simulations, and complex statistical models, to paint a fine-grained picture of phonetic and phonological variability, and ask new questions about its sources.
  • Title: Language Acquisition and Breakdown: Experiments with Quantifiers and Quantities at the Syntax-Semantics Interface
    Investigator: Yosef Grodzinsky
    Duration of grant: 2013-2015
    Granting agency: SSHRC Insight Grant
    Project description: The proposed research has three objectives: A. to provide neurolinguistic and psycholinguistic evidence that would help to adjudicate between competing linguistic analyses of certain complex natural language quantifiers. B. to better understand, and more precisely characterize, the language deficit subsequent to focal damage to (some of) the language regions in the human brain, through theory-driven experimental investigations of the various aphasic syndromes. C. to help elucidate the relation between the language deficits observed in these syndromes and the temporarily incomplete linguistic abilities observed in the normally developing child. This might bear on the well-known Regression Hypothesis, concerning the relation between language acquisition and breakdown (Jakobson, 1941; Caramazza & Zurif, 1978, passim).
  • Title: Modality in the Nominal Domain.
    Investigator: Luis Alonso-Ovalle (PI), Junko Shimoyama & Bernhard Schwarz.
    Duration of grant: 2013-2017
    Granting agency: SSHRC Insight Grant
    Project descriptionDeterminers ('the', 'every,' ...) and the phrases that they form with nominal expressions ('the book', 'every book,'...) refer to and quantify over entities. Since antiquity, the study of determiner phrases has centered on these two basic semantic operations. The project seeks to advance the study of determiner phrases by exploring an understudied but cross-linguistically widespread family of instances that complement reference or quantification with modal meanings of the type that auxiliary verbs like 'must', 'can' or 'should' express. Our general objective is to elucidate linguistic principles in DP interpretation and the expression of modality through a systematic cross-linguistic description and analysis of modal DPs, bringing together two classic domains of inquiry (DPs and modality) with very limited overlap up to now.
  • Title: Variability in Speech: New Tools for a New Era of Language Research (Speech Learning Lab)
    Investigator: Meghan Clayards (PI), Morgan Sonderegger, Michael Wagner, Kris Onishi (Psychology) & Aparna Nadig (SCSD)
    Duration of Grant: 2013-2015
    Granting Agency: McGill Collaborative Research Development Grant
    Project Description: A central puzzle for understanding natural language is how, despite vast variability in how we speak, we communicate rapidly and efficiently, adapting to each situation. This skill is one that automatic speech recognition tools so far fail to emulate. To understand how humans (and machines) cope with speech variability, we need better information about the extent and limits of variation. Significant progress has been made, however, collecting and annotating speech data have been done primarily by hand, a lengthy and expensive process that limited the questions which could be asked. Our primary objective is to develop and validate new quantitative tools to remedy the data bottleneck taking advantage of recent improvements in speech technology. The challenge is that these tools (unlike humans) do not yet generalize well to data from different contexts (e.g., speech of children, to children, or in conversational settings) which generally contain more variability and noise. Our approach is to apply specific computational tools we have developed to different data sets we have collected (including conversational speech and speech involving children), yielding proof-of-concept results.
  • Title: Personne et nombre dans les langues Mi'gmaq et Kaqchikel: Conséquences pour la concordance
    Investigator: Jessica Coon
    Duration of grant: 2013–2016
    Granting agency: FQRSC Nouveaux Chercheurs
    Project description: This research project seeks to document and analyze a cross-linguistically rare pattern of verbal agreement in Kaqchikel (Mayan) and Mi'gmaq (Algonquian). In certain constructions in both languages, a particular morphological slot is filled by features of either the subject or the object, depending on their relative ranking along a "prominence hierarchy." In both languages, both person and number features must be taken into account. Through investigating the interaction of person and number features in these languages, the project seeks to contribute to our understanding of agreement more generally.
  • Title: Developing mobile learning applications for the Mi'gmaq language: New opportunities for language research and revitalization (Project website)
    Investigator: Jessica Coon (PI), Alan Bale (Concordia), Gail Metallic (Listuguj Education Directorate), and Michael Wagner 
    Duration of grant: 2013–2016
    Granting agency: SSHRC Partnership Development Grant
    Project description: The proposed project aims to contribute to existing community efforts to reverse the trend of language loss in the Listuguj Mi'gmaq First Nation and to simultaneously revitalize, document, and research the Mi'gmaq language through a unique opportunity to partner four core entities: 1) Linguists at McGill and 2) Concordia Universities; 3) the Listuguj Education Directorate (LED) and 4) a Montreal-based software company, iLanguage Lab. These four entities will work together to achieve three inter-related and mutually re-enforcing goals: 1) Teaching: increase Mi'gmaq language teaching and learning capacities in Listuguj; 2) Research: document, describe, and analyze Mi'gmaq; and 3) Technology development: develop language-learning and language database software tools for use by linguists and community members. The strength of this partnership rests on the fact that these objectives feed into each other in novel ways and will integrate Aboriginal students as researchers and contributors to knowledge on their heritage language. 
  • Title: Variations entre langues dans la sémantique des groupes nominaux indéfinis: l’expression de l’ignorance et de l’indifference
    Investigator: Luis Alonso-Ovalle
    Duration of grant: 2012–2015
    Granting agency: FQRSC Nouveaux Chercheurs
    Project description: Determining a typology of natural language quantification remains a central goal in the search of cross linguistic stable properties that can shed light on the universal properties of natural language. This project contributes to this goal by examining the interpretation of a number of modal indefinite noun phrases that express meal meanings. The project seeks to determine the source of these modal meanings, the dimensions along which they can vary from language to language, and what these two issues reveal about natural language quantification. On the theoretical side, results will contribute to our understanding of the source of implicit modal meanings, and to the computation of non-literal meanings.
  • Title: The mental representation of language variation: macro- and micro-parameters (Ergativity Lab website)
    Investigator: Lisa Travis (PI) and Jessica Coon
    Duration of grant: 2012–2015
    Granting agency: SSHRC #435-2012-0882
    Project description: This research project seeks to understand how language variation is encoded by examining what has been described as ergativity in the typological and syntactic literature. Within the scope of this project, we have two sets of goals. One set of goals involves extending the relevant data set to under-documented ergative languages as well as languages that have some ergative characteristics but have not traditionally been considered to be ergative.  We plan to add to the existing descriptive generalizations of how ergative properties pattern cross-linguistically. We will primarily investigate closely related languages/dialects within the Austronesian and the Mayan language families. Since both families show variation in the presentation of ergative characteristics, they are appropriate laboratories for investigating the ergativity continuum. The other set of goals involves investigating the theoretical tools of the language faculty in order to shed light on the nature of parameters focusing specifically on: (i) the viability of macroparameters (ii) the restrictions on parameters, and (iii) the particular characteristics of the ergativity continuum.
  • Title: Foreign-a words and the third low vowel of Canadian English
    Investigator: Charles Boberg
    Duration of grant: 2011-2014
    Granting agency: SSHRC #410-2011-1409
    Project description: This project examines variation in the way words borrowed from other languages are pronounced in Canadian English.  In particular, it examines pronunciation of vowels spelled with the letter <a>, which has three regular phonemic values in English: /ey/ (fate); /æ/ (fat); and /ah/ (father).  Previous research has shown that Canadian English favors /æ/ in these words, where other dialects favor /ah/.  Whereas American English uses /ah/ in words like pasta and words like drama, British English uses /æ/ in pasta and Canadian English uses /æ/ in both.  However, my most recent research on this pattern found that some Canadian productions cannot be classified as either /æ/ or /ah/, but fall somewhere in the intermediate phonetic space between these vowels.  For instance, many speakers pronounce façade in a way that rhymes neither with sad nor with sod, but is halfway between those vowels.  Are such productions atypical instances of either /æ/ or /ah/, or simply imitations of foreign pronunciations without any formal status in the grammar, or do they constitute a new vowel phoneme that is being created by the foreign element in the lexicon of Canadian English?  I examine these questions by eliciting productions of a wide range of foreign words spelled with <a> (pasta, lava, mantra, nachos, saga, Bali, etc.) from native speakers of Canadian and American English, along with tokens of neighboring vowels, in order to assess the pattern of vowel assignments across a large data set, and the exact phonemic relations that characterize the low vowel space in Canadian and neighboring American varieties of English.  The analysis involves both auditory-impressionistic judgments and acoustic measurement.
  • Title: Second language acquisition at the phonology/syntax interface
    Investigators: Lydia White and Heather Goad
    Duration of grant: 2011-2015
    Granting agency: SSHRC #410-2011-0809
    Project description: This research program extends our work on the Prosodic Transfer Hypothesis (PTH). The PTH argues for a prosodic account of L2 learners' omission or mispronunciation of inflectional morphology and function words, such as tense, agreement, determiners, etc. In particular, L2 learners are claimed to have difficulties constructing prosodic representations which are disallowed in the L1. In this program, we investigate additional L1/L2 combinations and new morphological domains. A series of experiments will be conducted, investigating the performance of child and adult L2 learners, comparing spoken production of functional material with performance on a variety of other tasks, both online and offline.
  • Title: An acoustic-phonetic analysis of conversational speech: the acoustic richness of communicatively-rich versus communicatively-poor words
    Investigator: Meghan Clayards
    Duration of grant: 2011-2014
    Granting agency: FQRSC Nouveaux Chercheurs
    Project description: This research investigates the acoustic characteristics of conversational style speech. Much is known about the acoustic characteristics of careful laboratory style speech. Conversational style speech is less well studied but understanding it is important for our understanding of normal spoken interaction, building and using human-machine interfaces and extracting information from spoken digital medial. One important difference between careful and conversational speech is that in careful speech all acoustic information is available and in conversational speech some words are highly compressed. The research proposed here investigates how acoustic information is altered in cases of compression. It will use scripted conversations to elicit instances of words in situations where they provide new and important information and in situations where they are informationaly redundant. The amount and type of acoustic information will be compared in these two cases. Experiments will also test whether the amount of acoustic information correlates with ease of recognition in perception.
  • Title: Degree constructions cross-linguistically: the case of Japanese
    Investigators: Junko Shimoyama (PI) and Bernhard Schwarz
    Duration of grant: 2010-2014
    Granting agency: SSHRC #410-2010-1264
    Project description: This research program aims to contribute to the theory of language variation and universals in the domain of syntax-semantics through a detailed and comprehensive study of so-called degree (or comparison) constructions in Japanese. A central question we address is whether observable differences between corresponding degree constructions in Japanese and English are attributable to independent grammatical variation between the two languages, or such differences are indicative of fundamental differences between the two degree systems. The research will form a basis for further projects on broader cross-linguistic studies.

Previous research grants

    • Title: A community-linguistics collaboration for revitalizing Mi'gmaq in Listuguj (Project website)
      Investigators: Jessica Coon (PI) and Michael Wagner
      Duration of grant: 2012-2013
      Granting agency: SSHRC #611-2012-0001
      Project description:This project will aid efforts to revitalize the Mi'gmaq language in the community of Listuguj (Gaspé region, Québec) through a collaboration between McGill and the community. Mi'gmaq, a member of the Eastern Algonquian branch of the Algonquian language family, is in acute danger of falling out of use in Listuguj. If nothing is done, it will likely be completely gone within decades. The situation in this community is similar to that in other Mi'gmaq communities in the Northeast, as well as to other First Nations communities across Canada. Young members of the community are no longer acquiring the language at home, and the majority of fluent Mi'gmaq speakers are over the age of 50. Despite this state of affairs, there is room for optimism: there has been a recent surge of efforts to develop new strategies to teach and learn the language, and bring it back into the daily lives of the community. The present proposal aims to augment these efforts through the co-creation of knowledge between linguists and native speakers. Given the rapidly aging base of speakers, the language revitalization efforts will focus on second language learning and documentation, as well as developing teaching materials for younger speakers. A critical theme underlying these efforts will be creating a culture in which the spoken language regains a central role in the community.
    • Title: Language and Context
      Investigators: Brendan S. Gillon (PI), Alan Bale, Sabine Bergler, Michael Blome-Tillmann, Iwao Hirose, Andrew Reisner
      Duration of grant: 2010-2013
      Granting agency: SSHRC #410-2010-1254
      Project description: How one formulates utterances and how one understands utterances can, and usually does, depend on context, taken in a very, very broad sense. How one understands an utterance depends not only on the words used, their literal meanings, their grammatical properties, the grammar of the utterance (morphology and syntax), how it is pronounced (phonology), but also on the situation in which it is uttered, and even on the beliefs of the utterer and the listeners. Context dependence is central to major issues hotly debated in a variety of areas of contemporary philosophy and to problems pivotal to theoretical and computational linguistics. The overall objective of the project is to bring together philosophy, on the one hand, with theoretical and computational linguistics, on the other, to obtain a rigorous understanding of linguistic context dependence. We shall then use this rigorous understanding to re-examine the philosophical debates and to improve methods in computational linguistics. More specifically, the project has two sub-objectives: to distinguish, in a principled way, between grammatically and non-grammatically based linguistic context dependence and to apply the results to address issues raised in computational linguistics and in philosophy, concentrating in the latter case on issues in decision theory, moral theory and epistemology.
    • Title: Effets de maturation sur l’acquisition et le traitement langagiers (Effects of maturation on the acquisition and processing of language)
      Investigators: Lydia White (PI), Fred Genesee, Heather Goad, Yuriko Oshima-Takane, Karsten Steinhauer, and Elin Thordardottir
      Duration of grant: 2009-2013
      Granting agency: FQRSC #2010-SE-130727
      Project description: This research program adopts a multi-disciplinary approach, investigating the nature and extent of age effects in language acquisition. The focus is on how age differences affect linguistic representations, language development, processing and use. A number of inter-related projects are included, involving comparisons between monolingual and bilingual language learners of different ages, impaired and unimpaired language learners, early and late acquirers of second languages, and learners experiencing language loss at different ages. Parallel and complementary experiments on a variety of linguistic phenomena are conducted.
    • Title: Cues to Segmenting Complex Syllables from the Speech Stream in Infancy
      Investigators: Kris Onishi & Heather Goad.
      Duration of grant: 2009-2011
      Granting agency: CRLMB New Initiative Funds
      Project description: This research program experimentally examines the linguistic and statistical cues that infants use to segment the speech stream into syllables. The focus is on the syllabification of word-internal stop+liquid clusters, as these clusters are phonotactically ambiguous when viewed from a cross-linguistic perspective: languages like French syllabify them as tautosyllabic while languages like Arabic syllabify them as heterosyllabic.
    • Title: McGill Syntactic Interfaces Research Group (McSIRG)
      Investigators: Lisa Travis (PI), Glyne Piggott, Bernard Schwarz, Junko Shimoyama.
      Duration of grant: 2009-2011
      Granting agency: FQRSC #2010-SE-130906
      Project description: The goal of this cross-modular research group is to closely examine technical issues that arise at the two syntactic interfaces – PF and LF – when syntactic representations are interpreted by either the phonological component or the semantic component. The investigation pays particular attention to the implications to both the phonology and the semantics of expressions of the theory of cyclic Spell Out of phases (Chomsky 2001).
    • Title: Interfaces in second language acquisition: accounting for the difficulties of second language learners.
      Principal investigator: Lydia White
      Duration of grant: 2008-2011
      Granting agency: SSHRC #410-2008-1001
      Project description: This project investigates possible causes of non-native performance in L2 acquisition. It has recently been suggested that L2 learners have problems in integrating different kinds of grammatical knowledge, for example, syntax with discourse or pragmatic requirements, syntax with morphology, or morphology with phonology. These are areas where different components of the grammar must 'interface' with each other. Projects conducted within the program will address different interfaces, in order to establish which interfaces (and which properties within particular interfaces) are problematic for second language learners and which are not.