Scroll through Emily Sabo’s website, and you quickly get a sense of the wide-ranging interests and accomplishments of this 5th-year linguistics PhD student. Descriptive headings highlight Emily’s varied roles as a linguist, PhD student, teacher, researcher, and -- yes -- even standup comedian! 

At U-M, Emily studies Spanish-English bilingualism, cognition, and humor with the aim of understanding the social and cognitive factors that influence how multilinguals  produce and process language. Emily is also completing the graduate certificate in Cognitive Science.

Fluent in multiple languages, Emily is one of the founding members of U-M’s Language Matters initiative and is passionate about increasing recognition of the role of language diversity on campus. She, herself, learned at an early age the important role language plays.

Learning Languages “Opens Doors and Minds”

Originally from Pittsburgh, Emily earned her B.S. in Spanish Education from The Pennsylvania State University. Learning Spanish sparked her interest in linguistics, Emily says, when she realized that learning languages “opens doors and allows you to meet people you wouldn't otherwise get to know.” 

With a strong foundation in Romance languages, Emily turned her attention to learning Korean -- a language that, Emily says, would “crack open a whole new part of the world" for her. With funding from the U.S. State Department, Emily studied Korean and taught English in South Korea as a Fulbright scholar.

“Learning Korean exposed me to a language with a totally different typology, and I began to see just how diverse language systems can be. After all, a language's grammatical and lexical distinctions can reveal a whole lot about its culture,” says Emily. “For example, I loved learning that in Korean you never say ‘my mom,’ it's always ‘our mom’ - even if you're an only child. It reflects how communal and group-minded Korean culture is.” 

In addition to teaching and studying in Korea, Emily has carried out psycholinguistic studies in southern Spain (on a National Science Foundation grant with Dr. Giuli Dussias), conducted experimental fieldwork in rural Ecuador (where she worked with the Quichua interpreter for the former Ecuadorian President), collected and compiled bilingual corpus data in Peru and Colombia, and studied Quechuan language varieties in both Peru and Ecuador. 

Research and Teaching: Embarrassed or Embarazada

In her research, Emily draws from sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic methods to explore how social factors, such as perceived speaker accent, affect language processing in the bilingual mind. For example, Emily’s dissertation uses electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure the electrical brain potentials in Spanish-English bilinguals as they process sentences containing false cognates, words that sound similar but mean something different. For example, Spanish ‘embarazada’ sounds like English ‘embarrassed’ in form but actually means ‘pregnant.’ Emily studies how these easily confusable words are processed in the bilingual brain. 

Recently, Emily also conducted a language attitudes perception study on accents. Emily explains that the results suggest that U.S. Midwesterners today are starting to hear Chicano English for what it is: a native dialect of U.S. English. This is exciting, says Emily, given that this Spanish/Latinx-influenced dialect has previously been mischaracterized by listeners as foreign-sounding, which reflected a "closed view of what counts as 'sounding American.'”

Complementing her research experience, Emily is passionate about teaching.

“I really love teaching,” says Emily. “For me, teaching has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my doctoral career, as it allows me to mentor curious undergraduates and curate engaging activities on topics I love.”

Emily has taught six different courses at U-M (in Cognitive Science, English, Linguistics, and the Honors program), two of which she taught as the instructor of record. Emily also works as a Practice Teaching Facilitator at the U-M Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) and is proud to be serving as the Linguistics Department's graduate student mentor this year, mentoring graduate students on “all things pedagogy.” 

Standup Comedy and Community Engagement

When she’s not working, Emily can be found with a mic in hand, performing standup comedy. 

Emily got her start in standup comedy through linguistics. Back in 2017 while traveling for a sociolinguistics conference, she ended up (by accident) in a workshop for up-and-coming female comedians. She’s since performed 30+ shows in several states around the U.S. and even once in Berlin (while abroad to study Bayesian statistics).

As a result of her experience, Emily has become increasingly interested in how humor operates linguistically, on and off stage. It’s ultimately what makes her work as a linguist and a comedian work so well together. 

As Emily explains, “hearing a joke as a linguist is like watching a card trick as a magician. You enjoy the illusion but at the same time, you’re looking at what the other hand is doing that makes it work.” Emily’s proclivity for comedy positively impacts her teaching, as humor is a tool that can be used to increase student engagement and student recall of course content. 

Standup has also left its mark on her research trajectory. She recently began a new project, the aim of which is to understand how Spanish-English bilinguals in the U.S. use code-switching for humorous effect. Spending time with comedians whose material incorporates languages other than English left Emily wondering how multilingual humor operates linguistically, given what we know about audience design theory and social identity construction. “I suppose it was just a matter of time… that I would get inspired academically from this part of my world.” 

Another highlight: in October 2019 Emily gave a TEDxUMDearborn talk in October 2019, titled “'Where humor hides in language,” which explained what linguistics can tell us about what makes us laugh.

Emily also recently presented a NerdNite talk at the Ann Arbor District Library on the 13 things people should know about language. A recording of the talk caught the eye of Venezuelan filmmaker Juan Freitez Mora, and what has resulted is the current production of We Are What We Speak, a documentary that unpacks the complex nature of language diversity and linguistic discrimination in the U.S. today for a general audience.

As an academic with an eye for industry collaborations, Emily recently accepted an invitation to give a talk at the Duolingo headquarters about her research. As Emily explains: “Duolingo is a language learning app that I find to be such an exciting application of practical linguistic knowledge and the kind of language learning research I get to do for a living.”

In addition to these many activities, Emily has found time to be a mentor in the community: “I've had the honor of having a little sister through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program since 2016, who has made Ann Arbor really feel like home during my doctoral studies.”