Carlson’s study of linguistics merges humanities and science

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Morehead State Professor of English Dr. Katy Carlson was raised in a musical family. The child of classically trained musicians, Carlson studied oboe, cello and piano while she was growing up. She also had an interest in languages, taking German classes in high school and Sanskrit classes in college. So, it seems natural that she would combine her love of music and languages by studying the linguistic concept of prosody or how the rhythm and timing of speech affect comprehension.    

“I was particularly good at analyzing a spoken sentence for what was accented, or spoken louder and with a higher pitch, as well as when there were pauses between parts of the sentence. Similarly, it was easy for me to produce sentences with a specific desired prosodic contour. Because of those skills, I began to work on how these properties of speech affected people’s understanding of sentences,” she said.  

During her 18 years at MSU, Carlson has mentored the research of 25 students, incorporating methods from cognitive psychology to explore how the way people speak affects the meaning listeners make of their speech. She uses both written and audio questionnaires to explore how changes in prosody, such as pausing at a certain point in a sentence or emphasizing particular words, affect how a message is understood. She also conducts ratings studies that have participants rate the naturalness of varied versions of specific sentences and completion studies, where participants are asked to finish incomplete sentences. Since 2013, Carlson’s research has been funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.   

“I run experiments in order to find out about how people understand language, specifically English. Each study we run tells us something about language and how it works in people’s brains, especially for the spoken language. Sometimes it tells us that we didn’t manage to ask the question quite right, but then there’s another chance to vary the sentences or the prosody or the way that the experiment is run in order to find out something new,” Carlson said.    

Students who work with Carlson on research learn how to plan, design and implement linguistics experiments, use research software, and quality-check their research. Carlson also encourages her mentees to present their research at academic conferences to gain experience in public speaking and networking opportunities.    

“I enjoy being able to awaken students to the amazing structure within language: the ways that sounds are combined into words which are combined into sentences, and so on,” Carlson said. “It is exciting to show students that there is so much more to know about language and the amazing ways that our brains are adapted to it. Seeing students find out about language and being able to offer some students the opportunity to research it in detail is very rewarding.”   

For information about programs in the Department of English, visit www.moreheadstate.edu/english, email english@moreheadstate.edu or call 606-783-9448.  

To learn more about Carlson’s research, contact her at k.carlson@moreheadstate.edu or call 606-783-2782.