A Q-Step in the Right Direction

Posted on October 23, 2015 by

My name is Lucy Giannasi and I am currently in my third year studying English Language. This course has endowed me with a broad range of skills, including those of a quantitative nature, which were integral to Laurel MacKenzie’s second year Language Variation and Change module, alongside others. Although this was not an aspect of the course that I had originally anticipated, this undoubtedly complements the university’s fervent appetite for research, by giving students a taste of handling large data sets, creating statistics and using associated computer programs. Hence, when the university offered me one of the three prestigious Q-Step summer internships within the LEL department, I immediately pursued the opportunity. In short, Q-Step is a £19.5 million programme that addresses the critical lack of quantitatively skilled social science graduates. Thus, not only did this nine to five job enable me to drastically expand this skillset over summer, but also be generously paid for doing so from the comfort of my own home, which is ideal for students who do not live in Manchester outside of term time.

The specific project on which I was accepted was supervised by Laurel MacKenzie and examined the linguistic and social conditions on an understudied case of phonological variation in English: the variable voicing of stem-final fricatives in plural nouns e.g. [paθs] or [paðz] for paths. Alongside another research assistant, I was required to code and perform quantitative analysis on relevant acoustic data e.g. tokens of paths, houses, and halves. We obtained this data from the British National Corpus (BNC), as well as three American English corpora: Switchboard, Fisher and the Philadelphia Neighbourhood Corpus (PNC). This allowed us to compare these varieties of English, in order to potentially unearth any dialectal differences in how the variable patterns. This project attracted my attention because it reflects some of my favourite aspects of linguistics; two of my favourite modules have been Language Variation and Change and Experimental Phonetics. Therefore, I was intrigued to find out if this would expose a novel pattern of orderly heterogeneity within the realm of phonology, to complement those evidenced in my previous studies.

In the subsequent 8 weeks of research, we exposed a multitude of noteworthy findings surrounding this phenomenon. For example, American English had a higher rate of devoicing at 39% when compared to the British English rate of 21%. Although some patterns did hold across both variations, e.g. there was more devoicing when th was the final segment, there were some dialectal differences in how the variable patterned e.g. female speakers of British English led in the use of voiceless variants, whereas female speakers of American English showed similar rates of devoicing to males. Some other interesting findings were that more devoicing occurred the further north in the UK that the speaker was recorded. Also, the PNC had the highest rates of devoicing when compared to the other American corpora, which may be indicative that Philadelphia devoices more than other US areas.

In sum, I am thrilled to have been a part of the Q-Step programme, as it has massively enriched the quantitative skills that I have acquired at university, by providing me with the opportunity to understand, analyse and criticise real world data, whilst working alongside a key academic in my field. In such a competitive job market, I am driven by the fact that this experience in research will distinguish my skillset from that of other graduates within my field and broaden my career prospects. I have also developed practical skills that will be transferrable for many jobs, as I have new experience with statistical software R and my existing Excel skills have also been strengthened. Hence, I am confident that I can now perform research on large bodies of data with ease, which can only aid my third year studies and future career. Therefore, I would encourage LEL students to take part in a Q-Step internship if the opportunity arises next summer, as it will complement your current studies, enhance your CV and could be a potential stimulus for a third year dissertation. Look out for our poster at the Q-Step event, which will be held at the Whitworth Art Gallery on November 20th!

Featured image: Dr Laurel MacKenzie (left) with Lucy Giannasi (centre) and Amy Hughes (top right), working on the Q-Step poster.