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Talking therapy: An interview with Tara McAllister Byun

by on November 14, 2014

Kevin Martens Wong speaks to speech pathologist and researcher Tara McAllister Byun. Tara was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal for her pioneering work in implementing ultrasound technology in clinical speech therapy. (You can find the original Wall Street Journal article here.)


How and when did you discover you had an interest in linguistics?

My older brother, a theoretical physicist, was the dominant influence on my early academic trajectory, so I knew I would become a scientist in some capacity—I just had to find my own niche. I’ve always had an aptitude for learning languages, so when I stumbled across a page in my course guide on “the scientific study of languages”, I was hooked. I took my first linguistics course in my second semester of freshman year and haven’t looked back since.

You took an unusual graduate education path: a PhD. in linguistics from MIT and an M.S. in communication disorders from Boston University. How did you decide this was what you wanted to do?

As much as I love linguistics, by the time I was in graduate school, I was questioning whether a career as a pure theoretician would be satisfying for me. As a first-year grad student at MIT, I went to a lecture on aphasia and was fascinated. Chatting with the speaker after the talk, I learned that students in MIT’s Health Sciences & Technologies programme had an option to embed an MS in speech-language pathology within their PhD studies. I petitioned the linguistics department to let me do the same—and was extraordinarily fortunate, in retrospect, that they were flexible enough to approve my request.

Sociolinguists have observed how the NYC dialect is shifting over time to using more postvocalic /r/. (My cousin, for example, who was born and raised in NYC, usually uses the postvocalic /r/.) Do these dialectal issues ever come up in your work?

Although I’ve done years of child speech research in Boston and New York, I haven’t had any regular clients or research participants from a non-rhotic household. I always screen for it (my participant history form includes a carefully worded question about “r-deleting dialects, where words like ‘spar’ and ‘spa’ sound the same”), but it just hasn’t come up yet.

Do you ever run into a situation where parents are concerned that their child is acquiring an /r/-less NYC accent but are treating it as a speech pathology issue?

While I haven’t encountered this issue personally, the New York Times will occasionally run articles about adult NYC speakers who seek the help of a speech pathologist to eliminate some of the more stigmatised features of their dialect, particularly ‘/r/-lessness’. ASHA, the professional organisation of speech pathologists in the USA, is very clear in stating that dialectal variation should not be considered a disorder or pathology, but it also indicates that there is no ethical or professional barrier to providing ‘accent modification’ services to individuals who voluntarily seek such training.

How did this process of contacting the media and giving the Wall Street Journal interview come about?

Faculty are always encouraged to inform the university’s press office of new papers coming out. There’s a tendency to want to wait for that one groundbreaking result that we consider truly newsworthy, but there’s just so much serendipity in what the press will pick up and when. Being located in New York certainly helped in my case. After the Wall Street Journal decided to pick up the story, their reporter was able to come to my department and see a (somewhat staged) ultrasound biofeedback session. And the interview was a real “only in New York” affair—they emailed me over the weekend and asked if I could be in their studio in midtown at 11 a.m. on Monday. Sure, why not?

Were you surprised by how they covered the story? Is there anything that you wish had been emphasised more or framed differently?

The article and especially the interview covered ultrasound biofeedback intervention in a very broad way; there was very little that was specifically linked to the article that was the subject of NYU’s press release. However, I thought that the level of detail was appropriate for their target audience.

What do you enjoy most about your current research?

I love that as a linguist in a department of communication disorders, I have the freedom to pursue both highly theoretical and highly applied research. I’m currently collaborating with two linguists, Sharon Inkelas and Yvan Rose, on a theoretical model of how motor control interfaces with the grammar in phonological development and disorders. At the same time, I’m involved in two projects funded by the NIH [National Institutes of Health] investigating the efficacy of biofeedback treatment for children with treatment-resistant speech errors. It’s never boring!

A pet peeve you have about any aspect of language use.

I favour the English plural ‘syllabuses’. If people hypercorrect me to “syllabi”, I hyper-hypercorrect them to “syllabontes”.

A language you’d like to learn, and why.

Korean, I suppose, since my husband is Korean-American. I picked up an evening Korean class when we first started dating, but I had to drop it due to a busy grad school schedule—and because I had since learned that my New York-born husband doesn’t speak Korean either.

Has linguistics changed you as a person in any way?

If there’s a lull in conversation, I just ask people how they pronounce “Mary, merry, marry”.

What is the top thing you wish more linguistics students knew about speech pathology?

I feel very strongly that there should be more collaboration and cross-pollination between linguistics and communication disorders. Speech pathology is a young field that needs more researchers, and I think that many students of linguistics would be no less satisfied pursuing their interest in language within the context of communication disorders. I would love it if all students in linguistics could take at least one course in communication disorders, to see if they have interests or aptitudes in that area.


Tara and her team continue to conduct speech pathology research at Byun Lab in New York City. If you’d like to read more about Tara’s exciting work, or even pilot-test some of the team’s methods and applications, visit Byun Lab on Facebook and follow Tara on Twitter (@ByunLab).

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