Linguistics students travel to Mexico, deliver research in Spanish

Students at the University of Nevada, Reno present research at language conference in Oaxaca

2/27/2013 - By: Stephany Kirby
Professor Lillehaugen and her students Professor Lillehaugen and her students at the “Coloquio Sobre Lenguas Otomangues y Vecinas” conference in Oaxaca, Mexico. From left: Brook Lillehaugen, Ellyn Morrill, Brent Coulter, Rebecca Whistler, Cameron Rees, Allyson Stronach, Enrique Valdivia and Oanh Luc.

At the University of Nevada, Reno students have the opportunity for their education to be in many different forms, and take them to unexpected places. Allyson Stronach is one of seven University students who were given the chance to travel to Oaxaca, Mexico after taking a linguistics class with Professor Brook Lillehaugen last spring.

Students learned about the Zapotec language and culture, but were also able to translate documents in the language from the 16th and 17th centuries into English. Lillehaugen, who travels often to Oaxaca, offered her students the chance to travel and participate in "Coloquio Sobre Lenguas Otomangues y Vecinas," an annual linguistics conference on Otomanguean, a large family of languages generally spoken in Mexico, and other neighboring languages. The students then presented research papers in Spanish.

"I think it is very hard to imagine what a place or people are like while you sit in a classroom," Lillehaugen said. "To get to be there in person, and see where and how they live, makes it very real."

Stronach and her group presented a paper that focused on FLEx, which stands for Fieldworks Language Explorer, a database developed by SIL International, an organization committed to language development, which Lillehaugen works with to connect Zapotec words in texts to words in a dictionary in the database. The text is entered into the database and then every word is linked to a dictionary entry and suggests translations for the document.

"Professor Lillehaugen thought it would be a good idea to use the database as a pedagogical tool in order to teach a number of students about Zapotec and language in general," Stronach said. "Some of us in the class started working on the database to help her out, but also to learn. We decided to present the effects of the database as a learning tool, along with using it for our own our research as undergraduates."

FLEx is a project Lillehaugen worked on during her two years as a linguistics lecturer for the University's Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts, and she continues to build while currently on tenure track at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. She jointly works on the database with George Aaron Broadwell at the University at Albany, The State University of New York.

Stronach, who is an undergraduate linguistics major at the University of Nevada, Reno, graduating this May, is already working to become a recognized scholar. Her journey started with Lillehaugen's class and the trip to Mexico, sparking an interest in related research. In summer 2012, Stronach landed a competitive research internship at the Harvard Lab for Developmental Studies working on child language acquisition with a group of senior researchers.

She said the experience taught her more about the research of language and solidified her decision to continue a career in linguistics.

Recently, Stronach presented her ongoing work on Zapotec at the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the America's annual conference this year in Boston.

Find out more about research and travel opportunities through the linguistics program at the University.


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