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Inside the Lab: Mary Ellen Ryder Linguistics Lab

By: Kathleen Tuck   Published 4:10 pm / April 11, 2016

Photo of the Linguistics Lab Group

By Becca Burke

Inside the Lab: Mary Ellen Ryder Linguistics Lab
Lab Director: Dr. Michal Temkin Martinez

The Mary Ellen Ryder Linguistics Lab was created in honor of its namesake, a beloved and devoted professor at Boise State University for more than 20 years prior to her tragic death in a wildfire in 2008.

“In creating the lab, we wanted to continue the work Mary Ellen did prior to her death, and continue to build and instill that sense of community that she had built within the linguistics program, the university and the Boise community at large,” explained Michal Temkin Martinez, associate professor of linguistics and lab director.

Michal Martinez, Linguistics Lab, students, language research, for Explore magazine, Carrie Quinney photo

The lab is involved in a large number of projects at any given time. The majority are connected to language documentation with refugee communities in the Treasure Valley, including the creation of a bilingual dictionary in Somali Chizigula. The lab and professor Temkin Martinez, in collaboration with Boise State professor emeritus Jon Dayley and members of the Somali Bantu Zigua Community, have put together more than 12,000 words and a sample sentence for each. The goal is to have the dictionary online and available to the public by the end of the academic year, and a hard copy published by December 2016.

The lab, located within the Simplot Micron Advising and Success Hub, currently is under renovation, so the lab is temporarily closed to the public. However, once renovations are complete, the lab typically will be open Tuesday through Thursday for student use. The lab also offers tutoring services for students who are taking Linguistics 305.

A sound booth assists with high quality audio for projects and experiments within the lab. The booth itself contains only a monitor and recording equipment in order to avoid any sound interference or degradation of sound quality. As the recording is made, the information is transferred to a computer station located right outside the booth so the data can be analyzed and preserved.

Michal Martinez, Linguistics Lab, students, language research, for Explore magazine, Carrie Quinney photo

Temkin Martinez is on sabbatical for the Spring 2016 semester while she completes research on the Languages of Boise Project. The project will culminate in a web app that has information on all of the languages spoken by refugees who live in the Boise area. The app will contain demographic information about where each language is spoken and what languages are related to it.

The app also will contain basic information related to cultural rules and norms within the community where each language is spoken. This could include, for instance, whether it’s disrespectful to make eye contact, if hand gestures should be kept at a minimum or if members of the opposite sex should never make physical contact.

“This information can help facilitate culturally appropriate communicative practices between refugees and service providers,” Temkin Martinez explained.

Another aspect of the app is a list of commonly used words and phrases that could be used in case of an emergency when an interpreter is not immediately available. “Imagine an EMT showing up to a house where there are no English speakers present,” Temkin Martinez said. “The EMT could click a button that says ‘Point to where it hurts,’ and then the app will speak the phrase in the refugee’s native language. The app isn’t meant to replace interpreters but in emergency situations it could be really helpful.”

Each of the faculty within the linguistics program undertake their own individual research.

  • Temkin Martinez’s research broadly examines the integration of theoretical, experimental and documentary approaches to language, with a focus on sounds of the world’s languages.
  • Associate professor Tim Thornes’ linguistic research has centered on grammatical structures at the word, sentence and discourse levels in order to better understand how such structures develop, how they function within the ecology of the language, and how they compare to grammatical structures from a cross-linguistic perspective. Additionally, Thornes has been working on a project to document proverbs in the Ebembe language, which is spoken primarily within the Democratic Republic of Congo. The language itself is richly built around the proverbs passed down from elders within the community. Thornes is working with two local native speakers to translate the proverbs into English; so far they have translated more than 100 proverbs.
  • Associate professor Casey Keck is investigating linguistic strategies used in academic contexts and how this research could be used to the betterment and preparation of international students looking to attend American universities through computer-based discourse analysis.
  • Associate professor Gail Shuck’s research focuses on ways that teaching practices and institutional structures operate from default assumptions about language users, specifically multilingual students as “deviations” from a monolingual norm.
  • Visiting associate professor Lauren Ackerman’s research focuses on the human mind’s decisions during the process of sentence comprehension, which can highlight how this process can fail for people who struggle with language comprehension due to disability, disease or other limitations, such as those associated with learning a second language.
  • Lecturer Chris VanderStouwe’s recent work includes media, visual, and ethnographic investigations into new constructions of queer identity, university safe spaces, commodification of identity and the body and the same-sex marriage movement.

For more information about the lab or to get involved, visit or email