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Voices Speak Volumes: Legacy Lecture Links Language to Life

Garellek with some of his students after the lecture
Linguistics prof Marc Garellek with some of his students.

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A vibrant, chatty crowd fills rows of chairs in the Price Center forum, packing the airy, spacious room to the edges. The din quiets as a man in slacks and a minty green button-up steps to the podium, taps the microphone and begins his speech with a wry smile and three simple words: “Voices,” he says, “speak volumes.” The speaker is linguistics professor Marc Garellek, the professor picked by the UC San Diego student body to give the 2023 Legacy Lecture

The annual Legacy Lecture, hosted by the UC San Diego Scholars Society, is an event in which a nominated professor gives a unique talk based on the prompt "If this were the last lecture you ever gave, what would you want to share with the world?"

Students watching lecture
Audience listens to Garellek attentively.

The Scholars Society, a student organization that provides learning and socializing opportunities for recipients of UC San Diego merit-based scholarships, has hosted the event since 2015. Professors selected by the student body to give the annual lecture have included Francesco Paesani of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry (2017), Laura Stevens of the Department of Mathematics (2019), Niema Moshiri of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering (2021) and most recently Will Styler (2022), also of the Department of Linguistics.

“Marc is an amazing teacher who has been both popular and iconic with our students for years,” said Will Styler, the linguist who gave the 2022 Legacy Lecture. “I was thrilled (but not shocked) to see him win this award for 2023. It was a joy to see him give this talk, and, as a prior Legacy Lecture winner, I’m proud to have Marc join our ranks.”

“The Legacy Lecture provides an opportunity for students to engage with and learn from a professor loved by their students while exploring an interesting subject area that is likely different from their major,” said Jesse Robinett, co-academic chair of the Scholars Society who helped to organize the event. “Additionally, the professor has the opportunity to share their research and insights with a broader audience.”

Garellek receiving award
The Scholars Society board presents Garellek with a Legacy Lecture commemorative placard.

The linguistics department has sent a professor to the Legacy Lecture stage two years in a row; Garellek mused that the cross-campus support and broad lecture attendance may in part be because of the way that linguistics touches on a lot of things that make us human: language, biology, cognition and social systems. 

Garellek, who uses he or they pronouns, focused his lecture, “Voices Speak Volumes,” on the voice: what it is, what it tells us about others, our unique vocal abilities and how the voice can be studied. Garellek’s research focuses largely on the study of phonetics, or the sounds that make up language.

As the director of the UC San Diego Phonetics Lab, Garellek studies laryngeal sounds—those produced in or with the larynx—and the ways that voices differ within and across languages. How do we define “voice?” What makes our voices sound like our own? What kind of physical, psychological, social and linguistic information do voices carry?

“In the classes I teach, I don’t typically focus on the work that I do with the voice,” Garellek explained, noting that they may touch on things that go on in the voice like voicelessness, but don't talk much about the voice itself. He teaches a variety of courses including phonetics, sociolinguistics—how language relates to social factors—and historical linguistics, which studies the development of languages over time.

“I wanted to use this opportunity to give the audience a taste of what it means to be a voice researcher because there aren’t many opportunities to study the voice, what it means, and how it is perceived. It’s really hard to define the voice; everyone knows what it means to have a voice, but then when we ask them to define the voice, it’s very hard to do so.”

During an interactive game, lecture attendees were asked to listen to a short speaking clip of an unknown famous person that was played backwards so that no linguistic information was available. The audience was then asked to identify the speaker; 3 out of 4 times, someone in the audience was able to identify the speaker correctly from the single backwards clip. This was only one of many interactive sections of Garellek’s lecture, though it may have been the one that garnered the most laughter at the gibberish-like sounds. 

Garellek headshot
Linguist Marc Garellek.

Garellek also populated his lecture slides with old photos of himself, quipping that if this truly was his last lecture, he’d want his students to see him at various points throughout his career. A Montréal native, Garellek grew up surrounded by multiple languages and fell into linguistics when he found an introductory linguistics textbook in high school. After attending McGill University as an undergraduate, Garellek completed his PhD in linguistics at UCLA and joined UC San Diego’s linguistics department during the 2013-2014 academic year.

"Marc does a really good job engaging students and is very receptive to how we’re doing in his classes,” shared undergrad student Maggie Kasberger. “He’s very knowledgeable without being intimidating and is very approachable.”

slide from lecture
One of Garellek's slides highighting a specific language in Southern Africa.

At the end of the day, what Garellek values most about his work is the chance to be in the classroom with students who are engaged in the material and love language as much as he does. Being honored for his teaching was a surprise, Garellek shared, but an extremely rewarding one. 

“Within research, our success is usually measured by the number and locations of publications,” he said. “There aren’t many opportunities to be recognized for our teaching; I don’t expect to be recognized, but being chosen to give the Legacy Lecture means there’s a lot of students who believe in my teaching and enjoy my classes enough to nominate me.”

View the 2023 Legacy Lecture here. 

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