Linguistics Professor Launches New Phonetics Lab

By Tasha Ramsey

Speech is an integral part of our development as children and one that continues to develop throughout our lives. Because of this, we don't often spend much time thinking about speech and what it reveals about our identities. However, one professor in the Linguistics Program at the University of Kentucky spends much of his time researching the aspects of speech and social identity. 

According to Dr. Kevin McGowan, Assistant Professor in the Linguistics Program in the College of Arts & Sciences, "Every time we open our mouths to speak we convey not only the words we intend to say but also who we are, where we’re from, how we feel about what we’re saying, how we feel about our listener, how healthy we feel, and the list just goes on and on."

McGowan received a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Michigan with a specialization in phonetics, the study of speech production, perception, and acoustics. His interest in linguistics stems from his Irish heritage.

"My mother and father emigrated to the U.S. from Dublin, Ireland, before I was born. As a kid, friends would often comment on my parents’ accents, but I couldn’t hear their accents at all.  I also noticed that when we would go visit Ireland I would come home with a brogue of my own that I could turn on or off at will. Both of these things fascinated me," McGowan said.

McGowan previously held positions at Rice University and Stanford University, teaching and doing research. In the fall of 2015, McGowan came to the University of Kentucky in hopes of contributing his research, which combines phonetics with sociolinguistics, to the growing Linguistics Program within the Department of English.

During the last week of February, McGowan with other faculty members of the program launched a new phonetics lab with an open house and tour.

"The lab has two sound booths, an ultrasound for imaging of the tongue during speech, an eye tracker for speech perception and reading research, state of the art recording capabilities, and a robust computing infrastructure for everything from reaction time experiments to research on speech synthesis and automatic speech recognition," McGowan explained. "I particularly hope that the lab will serve as the substrate for a new community of speech researchers: faculty, students, staff, and anyone interested in speech production, perception, acoustics, and the linguistic consequences of these."

This lab, which models other successful phonetics labs that McGowan has previously worked in, represents another big step for the Linguistics Program and their journey to become a new department within the College of Arts & Sciences. Their relatively new Master's program is proving to be a success and they are working hard to launch a new Ph.D. program as well. And on top of all that, they will be hosting the Biennial Linguistics Summer Institute next year on UK's campus.

"Launching a new department is quite rare in linguistics and getting to be part of that at the start of my own career feels really special," McGowan remarked. "It’s thrilling and daunting to be part of all of this."

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