UNIVERSITY PARK, PA – People increasingly depend on human technologies such as intelligent voice assistants and computerized tutoring to access government, community, health and education services. However, the technology is largely based on Standard American English and conflicts with the diversity of many English speaking users.
A nearly $ 3 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s research internship program will fund a five-year graduate training program at Penn State to address key challenges in diversifying the English language that a much of this technology uses.
According to lead researcher Janet van Hell, professor of psychology and linguistics and co-director of the Language Science Center (CLS), the project will provide training to 48 graduate students, including 23 funded interns, from various graduate programs including Psychology, Communication Sciences and Disorders, Spanish, German, design and learning technology, computer science and engineering, and information science and technology.
“Human technologies are designed to help us, but they are often based on Standard English as many variations of English are spoken across the country,” Van Hell said. “About a quarter of people living in the United States do not speak English at home, and many English speakers use a regional variety of American English, African American vernacular English, sign language, or have some form of disorder. of communication. “
Additionally, as our population ages, age-related hearing loss and language disorders can also impact the usability of human technologies. “Our goal is to educate a new generation of graduate students while simultaneously connecting linguistic diversity with technology,” said Van Hell.
The 48 graduate students will take interdisciplinary courses while working on transdisciplinary team research projects that meet a specific objective and produce a tangible product, such as a design project, pilot application, or research-focused study. integration of language sciences and human technologies. interaction.
“We have found that students graduating from different programs in the broader fields of language science and technology do not generally interact with each other, so we hope that at the end of the two-year training program , students will know enough about the two disciplines to be able to work together and make the technology more linguistically diverse, ”said Van Hell.
Interns will also participate in group seminars, research and mentoring events, as well as a linguistic diversity awareness program. They will end the program with an internship with academic and private sector partners to support careers that combine language and technology, both inside and outside academia, in national and international contexts.
The initial idea for the training project was influenced by the personal experiences of Van Hell. After moving from the Netherlands to the United States 10 years ago, she and her husband struggled to use smart voice devices because the technology did not recognize their accented English.
“I realized that a lot of others were struggling in this tech-based society as well,” Van Hell said. “I also discovered, while I was working to train language science students for careers outside academia, that many tech companies were welcoming language professionals. There is a need in the American workforce to bring together technological and language skills. “
The two-year training scholarship will end with the new graduate certificate titled “Linguistic Diversity and Technology”. An important aspect of the program is that the training can be incorporated into students’ home training programs without significantly extending the expected time to complete their graduate degrees.
Along with NSF and CLS, funded intern support is leveraged from participating Penn State colleges and departments. Penn State participating entities and team members include Liberal Arts Colleges (PI Janet van Hell and co-PI Giuli Dussias and Carrie Jackson), Health and Human Development (co-PI Carol Miller and Janice Light ), Education (Marcela Borge), Engineering (Rebecca Passonneau), Information Technology and Science (Lee Giles) and Institute for Computational and Data Science (Jenni Evans).