This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2021 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.
This entry is by Zephaniah Sainta
The University of Pennsylvania is home to the oldest modern linguistics department in the United States and Philadelphia English is known to be one of the most well-studied dialects of English in the world. Why, then, do we know so little about the way black children in Philadelphia learn to speak?
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to address this question and partake in my first summer internship this year. As a research assistant at the Penn Infant Language Center, I have been able to take part in a timely study on the language learning processes of black children in Philadelphia.
Child language acquisition sits comfortably at the intersection of two of my most passionate interests: psychology and linguistics. What made this opportunity even more apt and appealing to me was the nature of the project I joined the laboratory to participate in. The Philly Home Corpus project seeks to take a closer look at African-American mothers and their children, and how language development starts in the everyday conversations that occur in their homes. As a black American and a Philadelphia native, I can hardly think of a project more fitting for me. I felt a particular call to this project and a curiosity about what linguistic revelations it may hold.
The dialects and speaking patterns of Black Americans, particularly those who call Philadelphia home, compose a realm not well-forayed into by the linguistics field as a whole. This lies in stark contrast to the predominantly well-studied Philadelphia dialect mostly spoken by white Philadelphians. Going into this project, I was conscious of the importance of its implications. However, I was less aware of exactly the sort of contributions I would be able to make.
Needless to say, working through a pandemic posed unique challenges, such as being unable to bring mothers and children into the lab in person and doing much of the work remotely. I expected, of course, to learn more about child language acquisition, but I came away with an understanding of other necessary laboratory procedures as well. Before data analysis can take place, recruitment and data collection must be done, which requires time, effort, and interpersonal collaboration. Because I participated in these kinds of important steps, I have come away with new skills, including coding eye-tracker videos and transcribing audio in softwares I had never used before.
The highlight of my summer was undoubtedly being introduced to new people, new ideas, and new skills to carry with me. My biggest takeaway from this summer is that research is a process of trial and error, perseverance, and dedication to learning. This experience provided a chance for me to gain real-world knowledge and understanding of the processes behind research as well as a newfound conviction for pursuing the things that interest me most. I remain convinced of the importance of the work I participated in, and I feel newly prepared to both contribute to and learn from it. It is with the utmost gratitude that I thank Career Services for making this experience possible.