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Spencer Kelly, Yukari Hirata discuss interdisciplinary project backed by institute

By Barbara Brooks on February 4, 2008
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It was billed as a humanities colloquium, but there was a whole lot of science going on.
That’s because Spencer Kelly, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, and Yukari Hirata, associate professor of Japanese, were presenting the results of their neurolinguistic research, and their official sponsor was the Harvey Picker Institute for Interdisciplinary Study in the Sciences and Mathematics.

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Spencer Kelly, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, and Yukari Hirata, associate professor of Japanese, discuss their research project that was sponsored by the Harvey Picker Institute for Interdisciplinary Study in the Sciences and Mathematics.

Last year, Kelly and Hirata earned the institute’s first research grant, and the colloquium on Jan. 29 was their platform to report on the results.
The idea to join with a linguist to study the way non-native speakers learn Japanese came to Kelly three years ago, at a science colloquium in which Hirata presented her work on Japanese speech sounds, or phonemes.
“After that day, we talked many times over coffee,” Kelly recalled. “We wondered if aural instruction, combined with videotaped hand gestures, could help English speakers discern the length of certain syllables that make learning Japanese so difficult.”
The Picker Institute’s call for proposals was especially opportune.
“It was a great first project for the Picker Institute to fund,” said institute director Bruce Selleck. “It truly required an interdisciplinary approach, applying Spencer’s multimodal communication expertise and Yukari’s phonetic theories.”
Over the past 18 months, the $82,000 grant has supported some 110 hours of data collection by six students, whose academic concentrations include Japanese, psychology, neuroscience, and peace studies.
The professors and students are now writing abstracts they hope to present this summer at conferences in Japan, Paris, and the Netherlands.

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