SoundsOnline: SSI Seed Grant Profile

We spoke with the recipients of the 2020-2021 Sound Studies Institute seed grants to find out more about the ins and outs of their projects, the impacts of their research, and what the Sound Studies Institute means to them. Our discussions have been edited for clarity and length.

Dr. Stephanie Archer is Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Alberta, and the Lab Director of the Little Magpies Lab for Infant Language Learning. Her research focuses on infant speech perception and the early stages of language development. Along with Dr. Anja Arnhold, Dr. Archer received a Sound Studies Institute seed grant to help fund the development of SoundsOnline, a web portal for University of Alberta language researchers to share, promote, and facilitate their research projects to prospective study participants, and to publish some of the results of those studies in a way that’s easily accessible to the general public. The Sound Studies Institute seed grant helped fund the creation of the online infrastructure for the web portal.

Can you tell me a bit about your research, and what the impetus was for the web portal project?

I’m the lab director at the Little Magpies lab, which is for infant language development studies. What we would normally do is bring the parents and the child in, and do in-person studies. For example, I have a study that I’ve been working on across dialects of English – we wanted to learn if mums speak to their children in different ways across the same language. That started in England, and now it’s continuing in Canada. However, the main focus of the lab is infant speech perception For instance, a baby will look at something on a screen and listen to something at the same time, and we observe how they look at visual stimuli while listening to speech. We call this “looking to listen”. To gather infant perception data is quite specific – it takes equipment, a sound attenuated booth, and trained experimenters. 

Then the pandemic happened, and everything kind of stopped. The future of our research studies was uncertain. We, as a lab, had to figure out different ways of trying to continue with our research. So, we looked at other ways to gather data while we waited out the infant perception studiesMy colleague, Anja Arnhold, and I collaborated to come up with a web portal. Perhaps, we thought, that we can add a few online studies and house them in a website.

What are your goals with creating the web portal to facilitate your research?

We had the idea to include three categories for  the web portal. We wanted to do some easy surveys – it’s not new, but we thought   it would be a good idea to have fun studies and  gather some data. Google Forms work, but we, hopefully, can create something nicer and more unique, that people could have fun doing and might also tell other people about.

The second category would be to gather data that requires more depth. We uploaded a study using JPsych, a platform for experimental studies. Called On Combining Consonants, our inaugural study, we simply ask the participant whether two syllables are the same (e.g., ‘bla’ vs. ‘bla’) or different (e.g., ‘bla’ vs. ‘dla’). Words in English do not start with ‘dl’. What we wanted to know is whether the ‘dla’ syllable is perceived as a ‘bla’ or a ‘gla’ syllable. Overall, this task is not new, (CITE) but we are adding this experiment as a way to compare adults’ perception of speech sounds to 9-month-old infants. Luckily, we already gathered the infant data for this project, otherwise we would have had to wait until it would be safe to bring infants back to our lab.

The third category is to host remote studies. For example, we have been investigating how mothers talk to their child (known as infant-directed speech) across  dialects of English. In this study we’ve been revising from in-person and in-lab, to using Zoom. However,  our new problem was that Zoom is not meant to record precise sound information. Zoom is created to make speech clear while damping noise.   For us to study this, we need to record sound as good as it can be. Instead, we sent recorders to families with instructions. My research assistants, specifically Rachel Tu and Taryn Yaceyko, did a great job explaining the study to parents through Zoom. After that, we just waited for the recorders to be returned for analysis. This is not ideal, but it works in the meantime. We are still working on ways to find families who would be interested in this project through the web portal.

 We’re continuing to work on further ways that we can have sound incorporated into these surveys and other online studies, because that’s the basis of our research in the meantime and why we’ve created the portal.The third category would be for promoting in-person studies for people to sign up to participate in at the university when it is safe and advisable. 

How important are collaborations and especially cross-discipline collaboration to achieving your scientific goals? 

This is something I’ve done for over a decade now – you would go out to try and recruit people for studies, and basically you’d go to these baby trade shows, in-person with a booth – “sign up with us!”. But those trade shows haven’t been happening and won’t again for a while. 

Within the university, there are a handful of developmentalist that are members of ChIRP, which stands for Child and Infant Research Participation. The Little Magpies Lab for Infant Language Learning is part of ChIRP.  It’s a way to share recruitment across  different labs and their varied projects that are happening with people who are already signed up as participants in one study, who might be interested in signing up to participate in another study. So I want all those studies to be housed in a place where we can advertise them all together to a larger population.

Just to kind of bring it all together – the first plan is trying to get these studies out, and also to recruit and advertise for us as a campus group. And then going forward with this, the next thing would be to expand it through the Sound Studies Institute – it would be really nice to continue on and populate this portal with other people doing sound research that use this kind of data, or who need to recruit and organize research participants in similar ways, not necessarily just researchers in linguistics. 

How does the Sound Studies Institute seed grant more specifically help you develop this project?

Without this seed grant opportunity, I don’t know what research I could be doing. The call for seed grant applications was actually the catalyst for me thinking about doing this project in the first place. This opportunity, especially as a pre-tenure faculty member, is really great. We have a chance to try this out and create a proof of concept, and if we can demonstrate that this works, we can get into tri-council grants and create a larger system to be able to do this for more projects and more researchers. In a practical sense, the seed grant is funding our graduate student, Aida Radu, who is doing the technical work of building the web portal back end. I couldn’t have done it with Aida.

There’s obviously things that are more difficult to do due to covid – but is there any degree to which these online methods are more effective to do than traditional methods?

One of the problems with my studies, in any university I’ve worked at, is that the participants are from fairly high-income demographics. I grew up in Calgary in a lower socioeconomic area, and not many of us decided that we would go to university. So it’s something that is actually important for me to do, to get more people interested and comfortable with the idea that they can participate in research. It can feel very daunting for a lot of people. 

I would still like to do in-person studies, however, it brings in more people if we can also create other types of research methods. Most in-person studies happen during the day, so that kind of self-selects a certain demographic that has the availability to participate in studies during those times. I think something like the SoundsOnline web portal could help it be more approachable for more people. Parents who have long hours could do some of these things at home in the evening. 

And really, it’s also still a weird situation in a lab. For example, what we’ve done in person is try our best to make participants comfortable – we just have a microphone, we try and let them know that we’re not actually listening in during the session, things like that. Or, bring infants in the lab to watch objects on a screen while listening to speech sounds. But during COVID, we’ve tried to find good ways of doing the parent-infant studies at home – we’ve sent portable recorders to participants, for example. 

A lot of your research is about connecting with members of the public, and in your grant proposal, you mentioned using the web portal not only to facilitate studies, but also as a tool to promote the idea of research itself. How important is it to promote research projects to the public in general?

Well,research is important! But, it’s easy for us to forget that the public doesn’t necessarily know that we’re doing research – people outside of the university don’t usually interact with us in that way. They think very differently about what happens at a university; they think we’re just a school, basically. Even undergrads don’t really have experience of that, they don’t know that we’re doing research in the meantime. When I’m trying to recruit participants for our studies, I can have a hard time just explaining what linguistics is.

So another important aspect of the SoundsOnline web portal ( is the potential for publishing research in a way that’s accessible to the public, in a blog format or something like that, so we can explain procedures  and results of our studies in a way we can that is easy to explain. Because not only is participating in studies not accessible for many people, so is just accessing this kind of information about studies and research in general.

In those ‘baby trade shows’, events like Moms, Pops, and Tots, I mentioned, I remember a few times we’d be standing in front of a booth asking , “Hello!, do you want to sign up for child development studies?” – and some people just automatically think that we’re doing some weird experiment, that we’ll do something physically invasive, and that’s so far from what we do. Our studies are infant and child friendly.  

In reality, we just want babies to look and listen, and we want them as happy as they can be all the time, because that’s the only way we can get data – you can’t do these studies with sad, angry, or tired babies! And then we can move on to studies with more cool stuff like using puppets, or using an eye-tracker –  things like that. I think that it’s so different from what they may think it is, it’s important to get that out to people in an accessible way.

Visit the SoundsOnline web portal

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