Get to Know Your Instructors: Nigel Ward

“Conversations over cake are very different from conversations over ice cream!” Nigel Ward (UT El Paso) is the co-instructor of the Intro to Prosody course at the LSA Institute at Davis. In this interview, Nigel gives us a preview of his research and how he’s made a career working on the relation of prosody and pragmatics. Continue reading to discover what Professor Ward considers as a good medicine for dissertation depression and mid-career blues.

Can you please tell us about your linguistic background?

Well, my degrees are both in Computer Science, but I’ve long been fascinated by language. At the University of Michigan in senior seminar we read Benjamin Whorf and George Lakoff, then at Berkeley I took courses from Lakoff and from Fillmore. I was hooked on the connections between thought, language, and social interaction.

Back then I thought spoken language phenomena were low-level and dull. So in my first academic position, at the University of Tokyo, I aimed to build efficient dialog applications, while sidestepping any and all phonetics-related obstacles and complications. I quickly learned, however, from both failures and successes, how essential such details are in human interaction. But it wasn’t until my first sabbatical, at UC Santa Cruz, that I could actually take a phonetics course, from Geoff Pullum, as luck would have it.

My day job is still building applications. The connections between prosody and pragmatics are important enough that I’ve been able to specialize and make a career working in this space. And on the side, I get to find connections to topics across linguistics: all sorts of ties between prosodic phenomena and social interaction and thought.

Can you tell us about the course you are teaching at the Institute?

My co-instructor, Francisco Torreira, is a solid linguist, and together we will survey prosody very broadly. Our aim for the course is to give students the skills needed to do research involving prosody, whether in a specific language, for practical applications, or in the prosodic aspects of lexical, syntactic, prosodic, and social phenomena.

The skills training will be diverse, including honing perception and production skills, learning how to apply conceptual tools and models, and exploring ways to make discoveries from data.

What research are you currently working on?

Well, actually I’m doing the final edits on a monograph: Prosodic Patterns in English Conversation, to be published by Cambridge University Press in March 2019. My students are working on ways to detect urgency in news broadcasts across languages, running a perception study to pin down the effective properties of the prosodic construction used to express positive assessment, using prosody to spot location mentions in dialog, and working out how to exploit prosodic patterns to make dialog systems more sensitive and responsive to the user’s instantaneous state.

What’s your favorite hobby or pastime?

Folk dancing, cycling, and hiking. I enjoy cooking too.

In a parallel university in which you are not an academic, what would you be?

I’d be a software developer or user-experience designer.

What are you most looking forward to about Davis?

Definitely co-teaching with Francisco, and meeting potential collaborators.

Ice cream or cake?

Well, it depends on who I’m with and what I want to talk about: conversations over cake are very different from conversations over ice cream!

What advice would you give to graduate students interested in pursuing a career in linguistics?

One thing I’ve learned is to allocate time for just listening to your data. It may be hard to prioritize this, given all the other things you have to do, but do it anyway. And, as George Lakoff taught me, immersion in data can be a good medicine for dissertation depression, or indeed, for mid-career blues. Rigor is important, but never let your methodology come between you and the joy of real data.

Learn more about Professor Ward here: