Q&A with undergraduate team members on the Second Language Research Forum 2019

Q&A with undergraduate team members Tahiira Zimmerman and Megan Towne regarding their experience at the Second Language Research Forum 2019, where they presented some of our research.

Q: Was this your first time presenting at a professional conference? Had you travelled outside Ohio for a conference presentation before? What had been your experience presenting before this trip?

Megan: This was my second time presenting. Last spring, we went to OSUCHiLL but that was here at Ohio State so I hadn’t had any experience traveling outside of Ohio – so that was really interesting.

Tahiira: It was my first time attending a professional conference. I didn’t have any experience presenting in this capacity.

Q: How did you get ready for the presentation? What was your process of practicing for the presentation like? How long did it take, was there any information you had to try to learn, etc.?

Tahiira: We met a couple of other times outside of the group to go over the presentation to make sure that we each knew what we wanted to say. Mostly, it was practicing on my own to see like, ok, do I actually know the information that we are supposed to be saying right now?, and putting that together when we got all together to practice. I don’t think there was any information that I had to try to learn exactly, because I had been involved in the project the previous semester and the information that I was presenting, I felt pretty confident that I understood.

Megan: Going off that, I didn’t really look up anything outside of practicing with the group. I guess I relied on the fact that I knew what you guys were saying in your part of the presentation so I’d be like, oh, they can’t ask any curveball questions! One other thing that I did to prepare, I gave the presentation to my roommates, which was very interesting! Because they have no knowledge of Spanish or of linguistics at all so I feel like they weren’t very receptive to what I was saying, but at least I got to practice! I didn’t really give the entire presentation but said this is my part, and they said “you did good, I didn’t really understand a thing but it made sense, kind of, or at least it sounded confident”

Q: Did you get many questions during the presentation? What was the process of taking questions like?

Tahiira: I actually appreciated the format in which we presented because we weren’t up there giving a presentation; we were giving a poster, right? A lot of the people that came up to us had knowledge about linguistics and Spanish linguistics and Spanish phonology, so a lot of the time when we were presenting, it wasn’t like we were talking at people and they were listening the whole time and they would wait until the end to see if they had any questions, but they were very interactive with us while it was happening, which was pretty nice. At one point, one person came by and said, “give me quick spiel”, and even while we were giving him the quick spiel, he was giving us feedback while it was happening. I feel like it was much more collaborative than me teaching them and them asking questions.

Megan: I think the nature of the questions we got might have been a bit different in comparison to OSUCHiLL, where we had a formal presentation and then questions at the end versus a poster presentation, like Tahiira said, where a lot of the people that came to us had more of a knowledge and a background in what our poster was about, instead of like, this talk looks cool, let’s ask some random questions! The feedback that we got was really helpful. I enjoyed answering the questions, while I feel last time it was more like oh my gosh, I hope they don’t actively ask me; Oihane you can do it!

Q: How did you structure your time while you were at the SLFR? Did you have the opportunity to meet and/or interact with other researchers?

Megan: Whenever there was some event going on, we tried our best to go to it. We listened to Oihane’s presentation and then we went to two of the plenary speakers, two of the highlights of the conference, and then they also had colloquia, which were groups of presentations. We caught the end of one and I was upset we missed one of the papers in that colloquium because it was talking about the use of the future tense in Spanish and I was like, oh we just talked about that in my class! So I would’ve liked to have seen that one.

Interacting with different grad students was interesting, mostly because I have zero experience of that outside of Oihane, so that was really fun. I really enjoyed going to a lot of the talks and I think I learned a lot, things that I hadn’t considered that people would be studying. It really opened my mind to what second language acquisition really encompasses. There are a lot of aspects of language that you don’t think about as a native speaker, but then thinking how that translates into learning is something completely different.

Tahiira: The only thing I have to add is that it was really interesting to see different aspects because the only part of language acquisition that I’m at all familiar with is phonology, but there were people working on things that were not phonology. I think I got more background in the other aspects of language acquisition, which was really fun. And a lot of people did research or spoke Spanish so, you could different aspects of Spanish language acquisition, which made more sense to me that issues related to Japanese or something like that. I was able to conceptualize it a lot more, which is really interesting.

Q: Did you ask any questions?

Tahiira: I was too scared, to be honest! And I was kind of intimidated and didn’t want to ask a question that would be too basic and everybody else would know.

Megan: I feel like I can never tell: is this a pointless question and people would be, “how come you don’t know this?”

Q: Did you get to go to other poster presentations?

Megan: I think we walked around right before we had to leave.

Tahiira: I feel like it was there, at the poster presentations, that I wanted to ask questions but we didn’t really have time.

Q: What did you learn from this conference? Did you see any other presentations that peaked your interest in particular? How did they further your knowledge in second language acquisition? Was there anything you learned that shocked or surprised you?

Tahiira: The one that really stood out to me the most was the plenary speaker from the first day. He was talking about, when you are doing research, the importance of maintaining your validity. I don’t know why but that really stuck with me. I guess I took it for granted. I thought that if you are doing research, then you are doing the right thing. But he was talking about how you need to make sure that you are analyzing something that will help you answer the question you are trying to answer.

Megan: Leading off that, in that talk, he talked about the different methods of analysis that you’d use. For me, linguistics has always been more of a social science, and I haven’t really seen the more “mathy” side of it, but looking at everyone’s different analyses, it was like, “we used R, the computer programming language R and we did ANOVAs”, and that was really cool because I really like math so it was great to see those two things being integrated together.

One thing that shocked me was to think how specific language acquisition is: within linguistics, then language acquisition, then second language acquisition, but to see how many people were there and how many of the people that I talked to were like, “yes, I was at this conference last week or last month”, realizing  how many of these things there are and how large the field is, even though it seems like it’s something very specific.

Tahiira: But, talking about how large it is, it also seemed like everybody there knew each other. So the field is big but it’s also small, at the same time. There is a good community there.

Q: What was your favorite part of the conference?

Megan: I think it was Friday night that they had a reception for one of the professors at Michigan State and she was retiring. Hearing everyone talk about her and the impact that she had made my heart melt – I enjoyed that aspect, hearing the community; she was very popular with the MSU crowd!

Tahiira: I enjoyed presenting – I thought it was going to be scary and very uncomfortable but I actually enjoyed it, being able to express what we have been doing and then, having people that appreciated it as well. I’ve talked about it with my friends but they don’t really appreciate it because it’s not their field of interest. So it was nice to share it with other people.

Q: How was going to a research conference as an undergraduate student different than you expected?

Megan: For some reason, I expected to see more undergraduates. I don’t know if it’s because for this project in particular there has been a lot of undergraduate participation so I kind of expected to see that, especially with other schools where there is a team as opposed to just individuals. I’m sure there were other undergrads but I didn’t interact with them or see them.

Tahiira: I agree. I also think that it was very welcoming to us, who weren’t conducting our own research but are part of a research team and are not PhD students. Everybody was encouraging us to continue.

Q: What advice would you give to other undergraduate students who might be presenting at a research conference in the future? Any advice on presenting a poster in particular?

Tahiira: One of the main things when it comes to presenting is anticipating the kinds of questions you are going to get from other people and trying to prepare for them – how you would think about it if you didn’t know anything about the project; to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes to be able to better answer those questions.

Megan: Yes, knowing what you are presenting well enough so you can be relaxed and have the answers, or at least something, in the back of your head for the weird or not weird questions that you might end up getting.

Q: How has the experience at SLRF contributed to your academic, professional and/or personal development?

Megan: I think the biggest take away from the conference was gaining experience presenting.  After graduation, I’m planning on entering the job market and within any field, it’s a great skill to be able to present in front of a large group of people and be able to explain something in a way that makes sense to people who might not be as familiar with the subject.  At the conference, we were “experts” on our own research, but without the ability to clearly communicate our results and conclusions, there’s no point in having this amazing project.  I believe I can take these skills and apply them to my future, whether that be within the field of linguistics or not.

In addition, I think this experience gave me a little bit more confidence in myself and my academic abilities.  It was a little daunting presenting information in front of intelligent, well-educated people who knew a lot more about the field than I did.  This was an awesome opportunity, and one that I don’t think many undergraduate students get to take advantage of.  It definitely helped strengthen my presentation and communication skills, as well as allowed me to gain exposure to a professional setting.

Tahiira: I think that SLRF has encouraged me to continue doing research, and to eventually try to develop my own project. There was an incredibly supportive atmosphere, and it was heartening to see the impact and relevance of the work that I’ve been a part of and how it interacts with others’ contributions.

Our voices/Nuestras voces at the Second Language Research Forum 2019

Team member, Oihane Muxika-Loitzate, tells us about her experience at SLRF:

Besides the poster, I also had the opportunity to present my project on “The production of voiceless stops in cognates and non-cognates among heritage speakers of Spanish”.


Tahiira, Megan and I attended the plenary talk of Dr. Luke Plonsky on Friday afternoon. The title of his talk was “Mind your measures: Methodological reform at the SLA-assessment interface”. In his talk, Dr. Plonsky explained that the results that we obtain in our L2 research depend on the types of measurements that we use. For that reason, it is essential to reconsider those measurements and to think of their validity in our studies.

There were also other poster presentations, paper presentations, and colloquia at SLRF. One of the colloquia that I attended was the Colloquium VII: “Shifting boundaries in second language speech research”, which took place on Saturday afternoon. In this colloquium, Charles Nagle, Amanda Huensch, Pavel Trofimovich, Mary Grantham O’Brien, and Okim Kang presented their studies on second language speech. I was able to learn more about ways in which we can measure intelligibility, comprehensibility, and accentedness, and the different factors that affect informants’ ratings and their bias in these ratings. Moreover, at the end of the presentations we had time for a short discussion with other researchers in the room. During this time I worked with Okim Kang and a group of attendees and we talked about exposing learners to high variability in the input, and more specifically, about exposing learners to world Englishes in the classroom.

Poster presentation at Second Language Research Forum

We presented some of our work at the Second Language Research Forum held at the Michigan State University in September 2019. You can find our poster below. In addition, we answer some of the questions that we received during our presentation, in an effort to make the poster more accessible. If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us!

Cite as: Campos-Astorkiza, R., O. Muxika-Loitzate, M. Towne, T. Zimmerman and K. DeLeon. 2019. Mixed methods to examine the acquisition of gradient allophonic variation. Presented at Second Language Research Forum, Michigan State University, Sept 20-22, 2019

SLRF poster

  • Could you give examples of words containing /b, d, g/ in Spanish?

These are examples of some of the words we analyzed:

lago /lago/ “lake”                   doce /dose/ “twelve”

bebé /bebe/ “baby”              comida /komida/ “food”

  • Which textbook do you use to teach pronunciation?

All of our data come from sections of the course Spanish Pronunciation that use the textbook “Sonidos en Contexto” by Terrell Morgan.

  • What type of instruction do students receive?

These are the instructions that students receive as part of the module:

“Welcome to the recording part of your Spanish Pronunciation assignment. Before you begin, please make sure you are comfortably seated in a quiet room with no background noise. If you have a plug-in microphone for your computer, please attach it and use it.
The recording task is divided into 6 short lists of English words and 7 short lists of Spanish words. For the duration of each short list (2-3 minutes), please do not do anything else, or change windows on your computer, as this will disrupt the recording process. You will be able to pause between each list.
When you are ready to begin, click the BEGIN button below, then read the words as they appear. This list will all be English words”

After they complete the first list, the move to the next page and get the following instructions:

“This is the second of six English word lists. As before, please read the words that appear below.
Please don’t do anything else or change windows on your computer during the recording. When you are ready to continue, click the BEGIN button below.”

They get similar instructions in all subsequent pages.

  • Have you considered analyzing the CV intensity ratio for each of the categories (voiced stops, approximants, and taps) separately?

For this presentation, we decided to group together approximants, voiced stops and taps for the analysis of the CV-intensity ratio in order to follow a similar methodology to previous studies on voiced stop weakening in Spanish (Carrasco et. al 2012, Rogers and Alvord 2014) and to make comparisons with their results. As we move forward, looking only at approximants from a continuous perspective will shed more light into our question related to the gradient nature of the weakening process under study. The categorical analysis captures the pattern for other categories and thus, would allow us to focus just on approximants for the continuous one.

  • Do you have a control group in your study?

We don’t have a separate control group. In our study, we compare participants to themselves at the beginning and at the end of the semester. This methodology allows us to avoid having to choose a control group, which would be hard to decide on. For instance, one might think of native speakers as a possible control group. However, this kind of comparison (learners vs. native speakers) can be problematic since they rely on the assumption that learners’ aim is to sound exactly like native speakers and studies have shown that this might not always be the case (Solon 2018). Furthermore, there is ample literature on monolingual Spanish speakers’ production of voiced stops, which allows us to compare our data to those findings, especially in terms of what linguistic factors condition the gradient phenomenon of stop weakening which is the focus of our study.

  • Why do you give students instant feedback about their vowels and then analyze /b, d, g/?

This poster is part of a bigger project where we actually plan to analyze more sounds, not just voiced stops. Some of the sounds for which we have data include vowels, voiceless stops and laterals. The instant feedback for the moment is for vowels but further feedback on students’ voiceless stop production is being developed. What kinds of feedback is given to students depends on what is feasible. For instance, it is possible to conduct instant acoustic analysis of vowels and generate vowel space plots. Similarly, automatic measuring of VOT for voiceless stops can be developed to provide instant feedback. On the other hand, automatic analysis of voiced stop production, in terms of stop vs. approximant productions, is a much more complicated task.

  • Do you find that both the categorical and the continuous analysis are necessary?

Our findings suggest that the categorical and continuous analyses complement each other and for that reason, our conclusion is that both are necessary. The results from the categorical analysis shows that there is development in the types of productions that participants use, i.e. changes in stop vs. approximant production, including use of voiceless stops. More precisely, we find that participants show a change in the categories they use in different contexts. These changes reflect a pattern of acquisition that would be missed if we only considered a continuous analysis. On the other hand, some of the categories might be present gradient differences in the way they are produced. Most notably, approximants might be less or more weakened, mirroring the actual pattern of production that native speakers display. In order to better understand how participants acquire the weakening process, it is important to see if they also show this gradiency and what factors condition it. Our continuous analysis allows us to answer this question.

  • Are students able to perceive differences between voiced stops and approximants?

This is a great question but unfortunately, we don’t have perception data to answer it. Our impressions from teaching students the alternation between voiced stops and approximants is that they can perceive the difference.

  • Did you have inter rater reliability for the categorical analysis?

We didn’t have systematic inter-rater reliability. However, all team members that categorize the data received intensive training that included in-person sessions where each member would categorize the same tokens and then, we’d compare our categorization to other members’. In addition, any problematic tokens were reviewed by two team members (one of them was always prof. Campos-Astorkiza) and a consensus was reached on the exact label. While inter-rater reliability would be ideal, we think that our system of categorization is reliable and based on effective training.

Carrasco P., Hualde, J.I. and Simonet, M. (2012). Dialectal differences in Spanish voiced obstruent allophony: Costa Rican versus Iberian Spanish. Phonetica 69, 149-179.

Rogers, B., and Alvord, S. (2014). The gradience of spirantization: Factors affecting L2 production of intervocalic Spanish [b,d,g]. Spanish in Context, 11:3.

Solon, M. (2018) The acquisition of second language Spanish sounds. In K. Geeslin (ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Spanish Linguistics. Cambridge University Press. 668-688.