Dr. Eric Vatikiotis-Bateson: Speaking Clearly

Students who know Professor Eric Vatikiotis-Bateson know he loves talking. But it’s not just hot air — he’s a linguist who’s long been fascinated by the links between language and communicative behaviour, and he says he’s thrilled to be probing those links within the research community at UBC.

Vatikiotis-Bateson, who is Canada Research Chair in Speech and Cognitive Science, teaches in the departments of Linguistics and Cognitive Systems, bringing to bear both his formal academic training in neuroscience and linguistics plus knowledge gained from years spent working in spoken communication laboratories in Japan, France, and the United States.

“Spoken communication,” he explains, “defines us as human beings; the flexibility and complexity of our linguistic system distinguishes us from other species.”

Speech Production

Despite their importance, major aspects of speech production are poorly understood. Vatikiotis-Bateson wants to know why it is that visible signs of speech production such as face and hand movements help humans recognize and understand what others are saying. To get at this, his investigations must incorporate the various biomechanical and neurological processes that combine to create speech. The resulting research program cuts across disciplinary lines, spanning biology, computer science, and engineering.

Students who know Vatikiotis-Bateson know he makes no bones about speaking his mind. So it’s more than slightly ironic that much of his work is themed on something most of us think of as diametrically opposed to transparency: talking heads. His talking heads, however, are not the kind you see on TV; the ones that generate elusive political and commercial doublespeak. Instead, Vatikiotis-Bateson builds realistic computer models that capture the fine motor and muscle movements associated with human speech production.

Along with another colleague, he’s writing a book on the same topic. “We’re cranky old men talking about talking heads,” he explains, grinning.

Research Results

The applications of his work are diverse, ranging from research tools for working with the hearing impaired to the creation of, and improvements in, avatars that are beginning to populate cyberspace. Vatikiotis-Bateson says adding to our knowledge of the physiological aspects of speech production via computer modeling improves documenting the last speakers of disappearing languages.

Beyond that, he says it’s just plain fascinating to study how facial movements give listeners major cues to the meaning of what speakers are saying, in all kinds of different contexts. Cheeks, eyes, hands and lips all play a major role in getting messages across.

Teaching Linguistics

Exploring these questions opens a window on the inner workings of the mind, which Vatikiotis-Bateson tries to get across along with other linguistic lessons as a teacher in the Department of Linguistics, where he has given the first-year introduction course for a number of years.“UBC has great students,” he says. “As an undergraduate program, UBC’s linguistics program is quite likely the best on the continent.” Linguistics, he adds, is the kind of discipline that continues to draw off-beat, curious people like him in from other disciplines — his primary undergrad training was in physics.

“As I say, it’s a quirky field that requires real dedication, and the kind of twisted intellect that thrives on tackling impossibly difficult problems.”

By Bryan Zandberg (BA, 2006, in French and Spanish). Bryan is a former editor with The Ubyssey.

2008