Changing A Discipline - WiSCO

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WiSCO has fundamentally changed how we are teaching a whole set of classes on campus, and it’s going to change how we understand American English far beyond campus.”

-Dr. Joe Salmons - Professor German,
College of Letters and Sciences

picture of Dr. Joe Salmons, Dr. Tom Purnell and Dr. Eric Raimy

WiSCO allows us to cover in a few weeks more than could previously be covered in a whole semester”

Dr. Eric Raimy - Associate Professor English, College of Letters and Science

When Dr. Joe Salmons, from German, and Dr. Tom Purnell and Dr. Eric Raimy, from English applied for an Engage Innovation Simulations and Games Award, they almost missed the application deadline. “Wow, what a mistake that would have been,” said Joe Salmons.

Salmons, Purnell, and Raimy were looking for a way to give undergraduate students a chance to do “real” research in linguistics. The group proposed a software program that would allow undergraduate students to see data from their recorded speech in context with other speakers. The Wisconsin Speech Chain On-Line (WiSCO) is an interactive speech sound visualization program. Using their own speech and that of friends and family from across Wisconsin and beyond, UW students can not only understand the phonetics of speech, but also compare and contrast data from different regions.

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The professors needed ways to introduce newcomers to linguistics and to the basic acoustic analysis of speech sounds quickly and cleanly. Engage worked with them to create WiSCO, which allows them to cover in a few weeks more than could previously be covered in a semester.

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WiSCO allows for the import, management, and visualization of speech data. Even though it was originally developed to help novice students in beginning phonetics courses quickly master acoustic analysis of vowels, WiSCO is now used as a research tool and in courses on dialects, variation and change, and historical linguistics.

Before WiSCO, only graduate students could conduct the kinds of language analysis that students in introductory classes are now participating in. The simulation makes the research more accessible because it plots the sound data immediately. Previously, students and instructors had to spend a great deal of time learning how to use different spreadsheet tools to plot human language sound data. Now, students across a whole set of departments, and at different expertise levels, can sift through real-world data on regional and social variations in speech patterns. Even those with no research experience are quickly able to begin their own scientific inquiry and advance the current understanding of language.

“This tool really is revolutionizing and really democratizing [linguistic inquiry]” said Salmons. “WiSCO is the tool that allows us to ask the higher level questions about language. That is the payoff.” Raimy added, “Our real goal is world domination – at least in linguistics.” Engage is honored to have helped start this revolutionary effort here at UW-Madison, and will be working with WiSCO to add capabilities for interactive mapping and vocabulary data.