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Bronco Snapshot: Michal Temkin-Martínez

By:    Published 12:29 pm / November 30, 2011

By Leah Sherwood

In 2010, electricians put the finishing touches on the wiring for the closet-sized recording booth at the heart of the Boise State Linguistics Lab, the newest addition to the second floor of the Simplot-Micron building. The lab is the brainchild of Michal Temkin-Martínez, assistant professor in the English Department, who has overseen the lab’s development. In addition to the new soundproof recording booth, the laboratory is equipped with offices, a library, and state-of-the-art hardware and software for speech analysis.

The lab is where Temkin-Martínez works on her latest research program, in collaboration with professor emeritus Jon Dayley and student interns, on the documentation of endangered languages spoken by refugees in the Boise area. The first of these projects is well on its way with the documentation of Kizigua, a language spoken by the Somali-Bantu community. Their Kizigua-English dictionary is up to 2,000 entries, and there are plans to publish a book describing the grammatical features of the language. The goal is not only to expand linguists’ understanding of minority African languages, but also to help Kizigua speakers themselves revitalize their native language, which is in danger of disappearing.

“A language dies every 14 days,” explains Temkin-Martínez. “With every language that dies, we lose knowledge, including knowledge about the natural world, that its speakers have managed to encode into their language.”

As director of the Linguistics Lab, Temkin-Martínez is also overseeing another research project involving Boise’s refugee population, this one to help train informal community language interpreters. This work is an ongoing collaboration with researchers in the School of Nursing who are studying the health status of resettled African refugees in Boise and are interested in developing a model for training uncertified community interpreters.

Temkin-Martínez was born in Israel, where she lived until age 12, when her family relocated to Los Angeles. She spent her teenage and college years in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, where she claims to have mastered the local Valley Girl dialect as “a native speaker.” She was recruited by Boise State three years ago, soon after finishing her graduate work at the University of Southern California, where she taught classes in Spanish while earning her Ph.D. in linguistics.

She finds her trilingual background (English, Spanish and Hebrew) to be helpful when guiding student discussions on the social and political dimensions of language. “I love hearing my students talk about issues of language awareness with non-linguists,” she says. “There is a lot of prejudice that’s manifested through identifying a person’s speech as a regional or ethnic dialect, or as a foreign accent. We see a lot of this in the news nowadays through ‘English-only’ movements, and other discriminatory actions – and it’s wonderful that our students are able to educate their peers and relatives about language discrimination. People who speak differently than you are not necessarily less intelligent than you, whether they speak another language or just another dialect of English.”

Spending time with students is the most rewarding part of her job, says Temkin-Martínez, who currently is living among the students as the faculty-in-residence for Taylor Hall. “I get tremendous joy working with students on all levels – whether it be in the classroom, in the lab working on a research project, or in the residence halls.”

As faculty-in-residence for the Arts and Humanities Residential College, Temkin-Martínez mentors first-year students through activities outside the classroom. In September, she and her students went on a camping trip organized by the Outdoor Program at the Recreation Center.

“It was wonderful and there’s a lot you can learn about students around the bonfire at night,” she said. “There have also been some embarrassing moments, like the time a group of students caught me taking the trash out in my pajamas.”

Living in the residence halls also has forced the Temkin-Martínez household to alter their somewhat unusual gardening habits. “When we lived off-campus, my husband [a biologist] grew a palm tree garden in our dining room” she explains. “This was quite the sophisticated operation – we had an industrial-strength humidifier, and the whole place was temperature controlled at around 78 degrees year-round.”

They had several different types of palm trees and some were reaching their 9-ft ceiling and were bent over.  They donated them to the CWI Agriculture Science program. “Now they live in one of the two giant greenhouses next to the Idaho Botanical Gardens.” She explains. “We got to go visit them on Labor Day – they looked so happy there! I’m sure they like greenhouses better than dining rooms.”

On the other hand, Temkin-Martínez’s two black cats (named Mafi and Tapi) seem to have had no trouble making the transition to life in the residence halls. “They are the Arts and Humanities Residential College’s pets-in-residents (or PIRs, pronounced like ‘purrs’),” she explains.

Outside of work, Temkin-Martínez has completed four triathlons, including one as a member of Team in Training, which raises money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and hopes to find time to train for the 2013 Boise Half-Ironman. For pleasure reading, she leans toward historically-based fiction books, especially those taking place during World War II. “My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor,” she explains, “so I love learning about others who lived through the experience, real or fictional.”

Parting Shot “This is my dream job. People laugh when I tell them, but they can ask my husband. When I started grad school, he asked me what it was that I wanted to do once I got my Ph.D., and I pretty much described my job here at Boise State. I feel extremely fortunate to be living out my dream on a daily basis.”