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Rhodes > English Language and Linguistics > Latest News

Meet our new phonologist!

Date Released: Tue, 22 March 2011 12:56 +0200

Dr Zhaleh Feizollahi joined the department's staff as a lecturer at the beginning of the year.  Now that she's settled into her new role as our resident phonologist and phonetician, we asked her to write a little about herself and answer some questions. This is what she wrote:

I received my Ph.D. in Acoustic Phonetics & Phonology from Georgetown University. I was an instructor at Georgetown and also spent a semester teaching at Humboldt State University. My experience at Georgetown University exposed me to high-achieving students, while the students at Humboldt State University exposed me to a diverse student body in terms of ethnicity, age, skill level, and future career plans. I have also worked in developing, researching and writing new text and problem sets for the second edition of the textbook Introduction to Language and Linguistics (Dr. Ralph Fasold and Dr. Jeff Connor-Linton, 2006). I enjoy working with others and have collaborated with two of my colleagues, James Gruber on Burmese tone and phonation, and with Dr Barbara Soukup (University of Vienna) on intonation and style-shifting between Standard and Dialect Bavarian-Austrian German.

1. What first made you interested in linguistics?

My undergraduate major was Language Studies and we were required to take courses in all of the core areas of theoretical linguistics. I was fascinated by the systematicity of language and the patterns found across languages. While I was taking phonetics, I was also enrolled in a Physics of Music course (I have played some instrument or another since a young age). I saw the overlap between the courses, since both taught us the mechanics and science of how sound and speech are produced and perceived. I was interested in how something as diverse and cultural as language could eventually be broken down into ever increasingly detailed systems. Music is the same: on the surface it is part of our culture and speaks to our emotions, yet when you break it down it can be explained in terms of the physics of sound, and sound resonances and propagation.

2. You had a temporary job with Microsoft before coming to Rhodes. What did you do there, and how did you find that experience?

At first I was hired to simply annotate text and speech to use for language modelling in Spoken Dialog Systems. I was obviously overqualified for the job so they started giving me more responsibility. Often they would acquire a new corpus and ask me to evaluate whether or not the corpus was applicable to the product we were building. In some cases, I wrote scripts to automatically annotate corpora. I also wrote context-free grammars, edited articles and a book that my boss was submitting for publication. I also designed the beginnings of a wizard study, which is a way of collecting user interface data with automated systems before the automated system has been built. The user believes that they interacting with a machine when in actuality a human is actually controlling the system, hence the term "wizard" from The Wizard of Oz. This way computational linguists can collect language data for a specific application to build a language model and dialog system. As the linguists and engineers build pieces of the systems, the wizard can take a step back and allow the computer to take over.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience. I had taken various courses in Computational Linguistics and it was interesting to put it all together. I enjoyed working in an applied field such as computational linguistics and the opportunity to get a sense of a new sub-field from the ground up.

3. What made you choose to apply for a job in South Africa?

I spent some time in Norway with a family. She is Norwegian and he is originally from South Africa. I'd heard a lot about the country from them and was somewhat familiar with the culture. When I saw the job advert, I thought it would be interesting. I grew up in California, which is very multi-cultural and has a casual laid back atmosphere, so South Africa seemed like a good fit. I've also thought of myself as someone who would someday live abroad. I like travelling, but even more so I like getting to know a culture more deeply than a two-week vacation could offer.

4. What have been your 'first impressions' of South Africa since your arrival? What linguistic quirks have struck you the most?

My first impressions are that it is quite laid back and multi-ethnic, which I enjoy. Any sort of culture shock I've had probably as to do with moving from an urban to a small town in a rural area. The pace is a lot slower, which has its pros and cons. I'm enjoying very short commutes!

I read up on the linguistic situation in South Africa, so I've expected to hear differences and various regional or ethnic varieties of English. Of course, now that I’m here, I hear so many more differences and varieties than I could ever imagine.

Some phrases are different, such as "so long", “lekker” etc. People often say "look", and to my ears, it sounds as if they're slightly upset with what I said and are trying to give a counter-example or argue against me. But often what they end up saying isn't as strong as what I expected to hear, so I needn’t be so quick to get defensive. Phrases such as “must” “musnt’, “needn’t” (for example in the US, I would have said that last sentence as “I don’t need to get defensive so quickly”).

5. What do you hope to achieve during your time at Rhodes?

Like most recent PhD graduates, my focus is on research and publishing. There were a few tangential issues that arose during my PhD research that didn't make it into the dissertation, so I'm working on developing those as articles. However, as I mentioned, I really enjoy working with others and that applies at all levels, from undergraduate students to postgrads and fellow colleagues. I'd like to build a body of research that is collaborative, inter-disciplinary, inter-departmental and ideally inter-institutional. I've reached out to James Connan in the Computer Science to work on a project on South African Sign Language to English machine translation (We're hoping that in the future, we can involve some third-years in this as a new research area for the department -- Ian S.). Sally Hunt, who also recently handed in her dissertation, is interested in corpus linguistics which draws from some of the statistical methods in CompLing. Overall, drawing from my experience at Microsoft and my theoretical linguistics background, I'd like to build a bridge between applied and theoretical linguistics.