The University of Chicago News Office
Feb. 3, 2003 Press Contact: Josh Schonwald
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Karen Landahl, Linguist, 1951-2003

Karen Landahl, Professor in the Department of Linguistics, Academic Director of the Language Labs and Archives and the Language Faculty Resource Center, and Associate Dean for Computing and Language Technologies at the University of Chicago, died Sunday, February 2 of cancer. A phonetician of exacting standards who used examples from Star Trek and a teacher who mattered greatly to students and colleagues, her work had real benefits for ordinary people, as well as for the disabled. Her doctoral study of how children learn language presented a major challenge to the dominant theories of Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. She used computers to understand speech impediments and show surgeons how to correct them, as well as to discover new ways to teach languages. She was 51 years old.

She was one of the first people to show that children have different styles of acquiring language, according to her dissertation advisor Philip Lieberman, Professor of Linguistics at Brown University. In a study of 5 children ages 1 to 5, she examined how they learned to speak through interactions with parents and caretakers. “She was the first one to show that children acquire speech sounds specific to their language gradually, in ways different from one another. Some learn to do specific words and sounds precisely, while others begin by doing whole sentences imprecisely–a serious challenge to Chomsky and Pinker’s idea that all of the sounds are already inherently present. And her work on anomalous speech used X-rays and computer modeling to find what plastic surgeons should do to make the speech of children with birth defects more understandable, as well as making their faces more normal.” When severe illness required Landahl to undergo a full glossotomy, rendering her unable to speak, she moved from classroom teaching to spearhead a program in educational technology as Associate Dean for Computing and Language Technologies. Here she used her knowledge of speech perception and production to become a leader in the use of computers in language teaching.

Born on December 20, 1951, Landahl grew up in Tinley Park, Illinois. moving to Flossmoor in 1960 and attending Homewood-Flossmoor High School. She earned a B.A. in Linguistics from St. Olaf College in 1974, spending her junior year in Oxford. In 1976 she received an M.A. and in 1982 a Ph.D. from Brown University, both in Linguistics. Her dissertation was entitled “The Onset of Structured Discourse: A Developmental Study of the Acquisition of Language.” While doing her Ph.D work in Rhode Island she pursued her second major area of interest as a consultant and a collaborative researcher in Chicago at the Center for Craniofacial Anomalies at the University of Illinois Medical Center. Following a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship in Speech Communications at MIT in 1981-2, she came to the University of Chicago as an assistant professor where she worked closely with her students on a number of collaborative research projects and articles.

Susan Goldin-Meadow, the Irving B. Harris Professor in the Department of Psychology, the Committees on Human Development and Chinese Studies, and the College, described Landahl’s knack for mentoring, which she encountered during a course they taught together for many years: “It was always a pleasure to teach with Karen. She was conscientious, thoughtful in the way she presented her material, and very sensitive to the intellectual needs of the students. I learned a great deal from her, not only about phonological development but also about how to be a good teacher.” Tamra Wysocki, a graduate student of Landahl’s in the Linguistics department, described her as a “huge influence, academically and personally. One of Karen's most distinctive qualities was that she expected the best work from all of her students. And she knew what that meant for each individual. That's one reason why I chose her to head my committee–she always brought out the very best work that I could do. Sometimes this was an agonizing process, but the end result was always worth it.”

Of her strength as a teacher, Jerrold Sadock, the Glen A. Lloyd Distinguished Service Professor and Chairman of the Department of Linguistics, wrote that “Her phonetics courses at all levels have always been the most demanding ones in our department. But her students learned and learned deeply. Karen’s students had to work hard, but the payoff was obvious to them: they rapidly developed to the point where they were able to give talks at scholarly meetings and write papers acceptable to high-quality professional journals, and they continued to flock to her as a teacher and mentor. Although Karen was the only phonetician in the department, a disproportionate number of students chose phonetics as their specialization and her as their committee chair.”

Her interests in phonetics, computers and language learning converged in her research, with her student Yukari Hirata, using the Visipitch software program, which displays the tones of a human voice on a computer screen. With this program, students could watch how pitch rises and falls when a native speaks a language, and then learn to imitate it–English speakers used it to learn Japanese during the school year, and Japanese students would come in the summer and learn English the same way. They found that when training with single words, students could learn to produce tones correctly, but not hear them correctly, while training with whole sentences improved both understanding and speaking–a discovery with both theoretical and practical consequences.

Janel Mueller, Dean of the Humanities Division, William Rainey Harper Professor in the College and Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature described the last years of Landahl’s life, which were both terribly difficult and remarkably successful. “I worked closely with her during the last two years when she was battling cancer, very much with her eyes wide open. She very graciously accepted my offer of an administrative position when what she really wanted to do was return to teaching and research. She made of that position something strong and constructive and really beneficial to the University. She took pride in the new directions she was steering for us. Karen picked herself up at a point in her life when many people would have taken a more passive road or just dropped out. Instead she was looking for how she could participate and make her life meaningful. She has my unstinting admiration and gratitude.”

Landahl had a wide variety of other linguistic interests, including the study of linguistic “others” such as feral children, sign-language-using chimps and humans without tongues or with cleft palates, which, she said “help us examine in detail what it means to be a language animal and how we view those who lack fluent speech and quick perception.” She was also interested in the origins of human language and the use of pop culture for teaching linguistic concepts.

At the time of her death she was working on four manuscripts that came out of her recent experiences: the first, Speechless: On Being Dumb, “explores what life is like without a tongue, without speech. It addresses disability, but also ends up being an appreciation of human speech.” The second, The Realm of the Unwell, explores “the consequences of ‘patient’ becoming a large part of one’s identity.” The third, Prayer, was “the most personal...so many friends and relatives have told me that they are praying for me. Prayer has always been problematic for me, so here I give some consideration to what ‘prayer’ may mean.” The last project came out of a very successful teaching aid: “Darmok,” one of Landahl’s favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. “This episode explored interaction with a people whose language the Universal Translator could not make sense of. Lately I have been thinking about how much English shares with this language.” The title was to be Is English an Alien Language?

Landahl is survived by her husband John M. Crenson and her parents, Betty and John Landahl. Donations may be sent to the Paracollege Statue/Lecture Fund at St. Olaf College, Northfield MN 55057. Her students in the Linguistics department are also planning a fund. A memorial service is being planned; students, friends and colleagues may contact the News Office for information.

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Last modified at 05:05 PM CST on Monday, April 14, 2003.

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