Feb. 20, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 10

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    Landahl, 1951-2003, first linguist to show children’s language acquisition differences

    Karen Landahl, Professor in Linguistics, Academic Director of the Language Labs and Archives and the Language Faculty Resource Center, and Associate Dean for Computing and Language Technologies at the University, died Sunday, Feb. 2. She was 51.

    Landahl was one of the first scholars to show that children have different styles of acquiring language, according to her dissertation advisor Philip Lieberman, professor of linguistics at Brown University.

    “She was the first one to show that children gradually acquire speech sounds specific to their language and in ways different from one another. Some learn to do specific words and sounds precisely, while others begin by doing whole sentences imprecisely–a serious challenge to Chomsky and Pinker’s idea that all of the sounds are already inherently present. And her work on anomalous speech used X-rays and computer modeling to find what plastic surgeons should do to make the speech of children with birth defects more understandable, as well as making their faces more normal.”

    Born Dec. 20, 1951, Landahl grew up in Tinley Park, Ill., moving to Flossmoor in 1960 and attending Homewood-Flossmoor High School. She earned a B.A. in Linguistics from St. Olaf College in 1974, spending her junior year in Oxford. In 1976 she received an M.A., and in 1982, a Ph.D. from Brown University, both in linguistics.

    While doing her Ph.D work in Rhode Island, she pursued her second major area of interest as a consultant and a collaborative researcher in Chicago at the Center for Craniofacial Anomalies at the University of Illinois Medical Center. Following a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship in Speech Communications at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1981 to 1982, Landahl joined the Chicago faculty as an Assistant Professor. She was promoted to full professor in fall 2002.

    Susan Goldin-Meadow, the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and the College, described Landahl’s knack for mentoring, which she encountered during a course they taught together for many years. “She was very sensitive to the intellectual needs of the students. I learned a great deal from her, not only about phonological development, but also about how to be a good teacher.”

    Tamra Wysocki, a graduate student in Linguistics, described her as a “huge influence, academically and personally. One of Karen’s most distinctive qualities was that she expected the best work from all of her students, and she knew what that meant for each individual. That’s one reason why I chose her to head my committee–she always brought out the very best work that I could do.”

    Of her strength as a teacher, Jerrold Sadock, the Glen A. Lloyd Distinguished Service Professor and Chairman of Linguistics, wrote, “Her phonetics courses at all levels have always been the most demanding ones in our department. Karen’s students had to work hard, but the payoff was obvious to them; they rapidly developed to the point where they were able to give talks at scholarly meetings and write papers acceptable to the top journals, and they continued to flock to her as a teacher and mentor.

    “Although Karen was the only phonetician in the department, a disproportionate number of students chose phonetics as their specialization and her as their committee chair.”

    When severe illness required Landahl to undergo a full glossotomy, rendering her unable to speak, she moved from classroom teaching to spearhead Chicago’s program in educational technology. Janel Mueller, Dean of the Division of the Humanities and the William Rainey Harper Distinguished Service Professor in the College, described the last years of Landahl’s life as both terribly difficult and remarkably successful.

    “I worked closely with her during the last two years when she was battling cancer, very much with her eyes wide open. She very graciously accepted my offer of an administrative position when what she really wanted to do was return to teaching and research. She made of that position something strong and constructive and really beneficial to the University. She took pride in the new directions she was steering for us. Karen picked herself up at a point in her life when many people would have taken a more passive road or just dropped out. Instead she was looking for how she could participate and make her life meaningful. She has my unstinting admiration and gratitude.”

    Prior to her death, Landahl was working on four manuscripts that related to her personal experiences of that time in her life. The first, Speechless: On Being Dumb, “explores what life is like without a tongue, without speech. It addresses disability, but also ends up being an appreciation of human speech.” The second, The Realm of the Unwell, explores “the consequences of ‘patient’ becoming a large part of one’s identity.” The third, Prayer, Landahl wrote, was “the most personal ... so many friends and relatives have told me that they are praying for me. Prayer has always been problematic for me, so here, I give some consideration to what ‘prayer’ may mean.”

    The last project came out of a successful teaching aid: “Darmok,” one of Landahl’s favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. “This episode explored interaction with a people whose language the universal translator could not make sense of. Lately I have been thinking about how much English shares with this language.” The title was to be Is English an Alien Language?

    John Crenson, Landahl’s husband, and Betty and John Landahl, her parents, survive her. Donations may be sent to the Paracollege Statue/Lecture Fund at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn., 55057. Her students in Linguistics also are planning a memorial fund.

    A memorial service is being planned, and more information is with the Linguistics Department at (773) 702-8522.