UC grad Simon Todd is using his 2013 Fulbright New Zealand General Graduate Award to complete his PhD in Linguistics at Stanford University, California. He shares his experience with us here…
What are you specialising in for your PhD?
I am in my 4th year of study towards a PhD in Linguistics. My dissertation research concerns the connection between asymmetries in spoken word perception and asymmetries in rates of sound change in words of different frequencies.
I am combining computational modeling, psycholinguistic experimentation, and large-scale statistical analysis of the development of the New Zealand accent to show that common words are more easily understood than uncommon words when pronounced in an unusual manner, and that this can cause common words to exhibit changes in accent faster or slower than uncommon words (depending on the circumstances).
Why did you choose Stanford?
The only word to describe Stanford is “vibrant”, and I chose it because it seemed a great place to both study and live for five years. The Linguistics Department is small, so all of the students and faculty are in contact; this gives both a buzz of collaboration and a fun, supportive social environment, complete with weekly happy hour! The university is home to great resources for academic and personal life. And of course, California is beautiful, with constant blue skies, golden beaches, and forest hikes.
You are back at UC for a few months – what are you working on here?
I’m here working on my dissertation for three months. Because it involves a case study in New Zealand English, I have been lucky enough to get my undergrad advisor at the University of Canterbury on my dissertation committee, so I’m here under her supervision. We’re working together to complete the computational modelling component of the dissertation, which emerged from my work at NZILBB several years ago. I’ll also be collecting data from historical recordings of New Zealanders born between 1850 and the 1990s — the entire history of New Zealand English — which will feed into my dissertation as well.
How did your undergraduate study prepare you for postgraduate in the US?
Studying both Linguistics and Mathematics gave me a firm foundation for both theory and methods that I made use of immediately in postgraduate classes, and doing an Honours degree and working at NZILBB gave me valuable research experience that let me independently and confidently pursue research from the start.
Please share some memorable moments of experiencing American life on your Fulbright exchange.
Thanksgiving. Stanford is very generous and gives us a whole week off for the Thanksgiving break. I usually visit family friends who live north of San Francisco. Thanksgiving is all about family and food, and I’ve been very lucky to experience the warm family environment, complete with turkey, gravy, cranberries, mashed potato, beans, biscuits (which are like scones), and pumpkin pie. It’s kind of like Christmas, just a month early and without presents.
4th of July. I went with some friends and my parents (when they were visiting) to a concert and fireworks to celebrate the 4th of July. It was a lot of fun, and really impressive to see how patriotic people were singing their national anthem and how much effort they had put into the display.
Football. In my first week at Stanford, I went to a football game. It’s basically a giant party, full of food, drink, and lots of cheering. It’s just as well, because the game itself moves really slowly — gameplay is about an hour, but stretches out to about four hours due to the constant stopping. Even torrential rain couldn’t put a damper on the fun-loving spirit infusing the stadium!
Have you connected with many other New Zealanders while you have been the US?
Yes. We have a network of 30+ New Zealanders at Stanford and we get together every year to celebrate various holidays with BBQs, such as Waitangi Day and ANZAC Day. Last year, we formalised the group into an official Stanford Student Association, which has enabled us to reach even more new students as they arrive.
I’ve also been fortunate to be involved with the Native American Cultural Center at Stanford, who host indigenous visitors including Ngāi Tahu every year for the First Nations Futures Program. This has given me a chance to connect with Māori culture in the US, which has been a great taste of home.
I have been in touch with about half a dozen of the Fulbright NZ cohort in my first year went to Stanford, and were instrumental in establishing the New Zealand community there. There is also an office for the Institute of International Education in San Francisco and they put on events for Fulbrighters from all countries; I’ve been to a few of these events and met interesting people from all over the world.
Please finish this sentence: International education is important because it connects us to a world of opportunities.
Fulbright New Zealand General Graduate Awards are for promising New Zealand graduate students to undertake postgraduate study or research at US institutions in any field. At least six awards valued at up to US$31,000 (plus $4,000 travel funding) are granted each year, towards one year of study or research in the US. Applications close 1 August annually.