Going to a festival this summer? Then why not participate in some academic research in between gigs? If you are attending the Zwarte Cross music festival this year, chances are that you will spot the mobile Spraaklab (Speech Lab) of the Faculty of Arts. Prof. Martijn Wieling, Professor by special appointment of Lower Saxon and Groningen Language and Culture, and Dr Defne Abur, assistant professor of Speech and Speech Technology at the Faculty of Arts, will once again be conducting linguistic research among festivalgoers together with their team of PhD students.
Last year, Martijn Wieling and his team took the Spraaklab to no fewer than six festivals: Zpannend Zernike, the Arts Festival at our own faculty, Expeditie NEXT, Zwarte Cross, Noorderzon, and the Festival della Scienza in Genoa. Their aims were to collect data for linguistic research and to generate public interest in academia.
‘Conducting research at public events and festivals is a very good idea for several reasons’, Wieling explains. ‘This way, you can get a much wider audience involved in your research, and not just people who are connected to the University or who live nearby. It is a very efficient way of conducting research, because you can gather an enormous amount of data in a short period of time. The amount of data that we gather during one week at a festival would normally take us a year to collect. In addition, very importantly, it gives us the opportunity to tell the public what we are doing and why our research is important in an appealing manner.’
‘It also provides a good way for the students who join the team to gain research experience’, Defne Abur adds. ‘In just a few days, they learn everything from informing and recruiting participants to conducting and analysing research. And, of course, it is a fun environment to conduct research in.’
Wieling and his research team have been visiting a wide variety of festivals with the Faculty of Arts Spraaklab since 2021. The Spraaklab is a mobile laboratory with a workplace and a sound-proofed room where researchers can, for example, make speech recordings and measure tongue and lip movements during speech. Placing sensors on a subject’s tongue enables researchers to measure small differences in word pronunciation. This provides a wealth of information about how dialects and regional languages differ from each other and where exactly those differences lie. In addition, the collected speech data are crucial in the development of speech technology for the Lower Saxon languages, in particular Gronings, one of the research lines that Wieling is working on.
‘Among other aspects, speech technology includes automatic conversion of speech to written text’, says Wieling. ‘This sort of technology is mainly developed for the more major languages, such as English and Dutch. This works well because there is a lot of source material available – much more than, for example, for Gronings or Drents. The Spraaklab enables us to drive into the province to collect such data. We think it is important to develop speech technology for regional languages, as it can stimulate the preservation and use of these languages.’
Abur studies the movements of the tongue, lips, and airways, which together enable speech production. She is particularly interested in how speech production differs in people with Parkinson’s disease. ‘One unique symptom of Parkinson’s disease is that it changes people’s speech: it becomes more unclear and patients develop breathing problems. We do not know why and how exactly this happens, but we do know that the first changes already start occurring about ten years before the disease is diagnosed. Something specific changes to the speech system long before other symptoms, such as tremors, emerge. Studying how the speech changes may enable us to find out how the disease develops and to create better speech therapies for people with Parkinson’s disease.’
Abur mainly studies the speech system by looking at the extent to which people are able to adjust their speech when something goes wrong, for example when they make a slip of the tongue. ‘When I accidentally say “cat” instead of “bat”, I immediately hear and feel that something is going wrong and I can instantly correct it.’ She gives an example of an experiment to study the speech system, which she conducted with the Spraaklab last year during the Festival della Scienza in Genoa. ‘Participants were asked to read several words out loud while wearing headphones. We then examined specifically what happened when they tried to correct a slip of the tongue.’
Abur looks at how people react. Her research also indicates how well people are able to adapt when something happens to the way in which they produce speech, like it does in people with Parkinson’s disease. ‘I want to learn to understand the speech system well enough to help people through speech and voice therapies. One major problem with the existing therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease is that, although it is very effective, the symptoms eventually return. There is no long-term therapy yet, because we do not understand well enough why people’s voices change.’
The Spraaklab is ready to start yet another great season. In addition to Zwarte Cross, Wieling and Abur hope to be able to visit Noorderzon and several other festivals as well. What tips do they have for researchers who would also like to attend festivals? Wieling: ‘Start small, that’s what we did too. At our first festivals, we only brought an ultrasound imaging machine to show people how their tongue moves when they speak. They were given a printout of their sonogram as a thank-you gift. We now have a whole range of activities, but it’s really no problem to start with one fun activity.’
A second tip is to start by focusing on science festivals, such as Zpannend Zernike in Groningen or the national Weekend van de Wetenschap (Science Weekend). This way, you can be sure that you will have an audience that is interested and willing to participate in your experiment. ‘You should also make sure that you tailor your research question to the target audience of the festival you are attending’, Abur adds. ‘The Festival della Scienza in Genoa, where we took the Spraaklab last year, attracts people of all ages, from young to old. We conducted an experiment where we changed something to people’s speech to see how they reacted to that. In this experiment, we specifically looked at the influence of age. We know that the relationship between hearing and speech changes as we grow older. How does that work in children, and how does it work in their grandparents? The results are now being processed and I hope to be able to report on them soon.’
‘Finally, you should make sure that your activity does not take too long’, Wieling concludes. ‘You can’t ask festivalgoers to spend an hour participating in a study, but ten to fifteen minutes is no problem for most people.’ He hopes that the Spraaklab will turn out to be popular again this year: ‘Everyone is warmly invited to participate in a fun scientific experiment and contribute to important research.’
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