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  Measuring and modelling speech sounds and their evolution

   School of Mathematics and Physics

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  Dr James Burridge  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

Applications are invited for a self-funded, 3-year full-time or 6-year part time PhD project.

The PhD will be based in the School of Mathematics and Physics, and will be supervised by Dr James Burridge

The work on this project could involve:

  • Development of visual representations of speech sounds
  • Modelling language change using probability, statistical physics and spatial models
  • Application of machine learning techniques to extract and measure recorded speech

Project description

As you travel around a country the way that people speak changes. An important part of this is accent, which is determined in part by the fundamental sound units which are used to build up words. For example, the set of vowel sounds used in spoken English varies systematically from place to place, making it possible to predict where someone is from using their vowels. Regional and worldwide variations in speech sounds arise because the way people speak is constantly evolving, driven by many different influences. Recent models, inspired by statistical physics [1] have shown that this evolution may be partially predictable using spatial modelling. 

One barrier to improving these models, and to a more rigorous and detailed understanding of human speech, is the difficulty in measuring voices in an automatic and simple to understand way. This project has two aims: the first is to exploit recent advances in the power and accessibility of machine learning methods (e.g., speech to text) in order to extract and measure individual speech sounds by mapping them to positions in low-dimensional charts (like the periodic table, but for sounds). The second aim is to use this measurement method to collect speech data nationally and internationally and build spatial models of its variation and evolution. The ability to take measurements of speech and model regional and international variations has many potential applications, including in speech therapy, language learning, voice training, modelling societal and linguistic change, and protecting the rights of people who experience discrimination because of the way they speak. The project would suit a keen modeller (e.g., a physicist / mathematician / engineer / quantitative linguist) who is interested in inter-disciplinary applications, and in developing useful skills in probability, spatial modelling, automatic speech analysis and machine learning.   

[1] James Burridge and Tamsin Blaxter (2021), Inferring the drivers of language change using spatial models, J. Phys. Complex. 2 035018

General admissions criteria

You'll need a good first degree from an internationally recognised university or a Master’s degree in an appropriate subject. In exceptional cases, we may consider equivalent professional experience and/or qualifications. English language proficiency at a minimum of IELTS band 6.5 with no component score below 6.0.

Specific candidate requirements

Interest in / aptitude for constructing mathematical models, probability, language, and sound coding skills (e.g., python), plus an enthusiasm to learn more. 

How to Apply

We encourage you to contact Dr James Burridge ([Email Address Removed]) to discuss your interest before you apply, quoting the project code.

When you are ready to apply, please follow the 'Apply now' link on the Mathematics PhD subject area page and select the link for the relevant intake. Make sure you submit a personal statement, proof of your degrees and grades, details of two referees, proof of your English language proficiency and an up-to-date CV. Our ‘How to Apply’ page offers further guidance on the PhD application process. 

When applying please quote project code: SMAP7440423 

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