Sarah Ita Levitan

sarah.levitan [AT] hunter [DOT] cuny [DOT] edu

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Hunter College.
I was previously a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in the Department of Computer Science at Columbia University. My research interests are in spoken language processing, which aims to teach computers to understand human speech. I am especially interested in paralinguistics, the study of non-verbal aspects of speech. I use computational approaches to learn information about a speaker’s state (e.g. emotion, deception) and traits (e.g. personality, native language) from their speech.

I obtained my PhD in Computer Science at Columbia University in 2019, advised by Dr. Julia Hirschberg. My PhD was funded through an NSF-GRFP fellowship and an NSF IGERT fellowship.


Trust and Mistrust in Spoken and Written Language

Postdoctoral Research

Our goal in this work is to discover what kind of language is likely to be trusted by others by examining acoustic and lexical cues in speech. This work can help advance human-computer interaction, where trust of computer agents is essential for successful interactions. To address this problem, we are conducting a large-scale study of trusted speech, analyzed prosodic and lexical cues to trust, and building predictive models of trusted language.  We are using a web-based lie detection game, LieCatcher, to collect judgments of deceptive speech.

We are also studying trusted language in the context of written news articles.  Americans’ trust in the media has been decreasing in recent years, and we are interested in studying how people perceive news, and whether we can identify linguistic characteristics that influence that perception. Further, can we identify differences in perception of trust based on user demographics, such as gender, age, and political affiliation? Using both article and user features, can we predict whether users will trust or mistrust news articles? This work advances our understanding of trust in media and provides a useful model for predicting how different readers will perceive news content.

Collaborators: Julia Hirschberg, Xi Chen, Marko Mandic, Michelle Levine

February 2019 - present

Identifying Deceptive Speech Across Cultures

Dissertation Research

Deception detection is a major goal of law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies, as well as commercial organizations. Despite much effort to develop automated language-based deception detection technologies, there have been few objective successes. Obstacles to this work include the lack of large, cleanly recorded corpora; the difficulty of acquiring ground truth truth/lie labels; and major differences in incentives for lying in the laboratory vs. lying in real life situations. Another well-recognized issue is the strong belief that there are individual and cultural differences in deception production and detection. This research addresses these issues and develops techniques to identify deceptive communication in spoken dialogue.

The main contributions of this work include: creation of the largest cleanly recorded corpus of deceptive speech, with over 122 hours of subject speech; detailed empirical studies of acoustic-prosodic, lexical, syntactic, and psycholinguistic indicators of deception; machine learning approaches, including the first use of deep learning methods for deception detection, that result in high performance at deception detection with over 70% accuracy; and detailed analysis of individual differences (e.g. culture, personality, gender) in deceptive behavior, and how these can be employed to improve automatic deception detection. 

Collaborators: Julia Hirschberg, Andrew Rosenberg, Michelle Levine, Guozhen An

September 2013 - January 2019

Automatic Gender Identification from Speech

Interactions LLC

Automatic identification of speaker traits such as gender, age and emotional state from speech is an important problem for personalized speech-driven services. In this work, we present a novel approach that leverages pitch feature trajectories with the goal of identifying the speaker’s gender with as little speech as possible.

We use the f0 (fundamental frequency) trajectory, the most discriminative feature between male and female speech, but instead of computing summary statistics of the f0 trajectory, we use the entire trajectory as input to the classifier. We model these trajectories as “text” input with each token corresponding to the binned f0 value. Our results show that the trajectory approach can be useful for obtaining fairly accurate gender predictions with as little as one second of speech.

Collaborators: Taniya Mishra, Srinivas Bangalore

May 2015 - August 2015

Entrainment in Supreme Court Oral Arguments

CRA-W Distributed REU, Columbia University

In conversation, people tend to become similar to their dialogue partner by adopting lexical, acoustic, prosodic, and syntactic characteristics of the interlocutor’s speech. Research shows that this phenomenon, known as entrainment, is associated with task success and dialogue quality. We studied entrainment patterns in the Supreme Court corpus, and examined relationships between trial success and entrainment between lawyers and justices. We used Amazon Mechanical Turk to preprocess the data and excise noisy areas in the audio files that skew the analysis process. We found that lawyers entrain more than justices, supporting the theory that the less dominant interlocutor is more likely to entrain to the more dominant speaker.

Collaborators: Julia Hirschberg, Rivka Levitan

May 2013 - August 2013



  • Individual Differences in Deception and Deception Detection in Spoken Dialogue
    Sarah Ita Levitan and Julia Hirschberg
    Mid-Atlantic Student Colloquium on Speech, Language and Learning (MASC-SLL) 2016

  • Novel Feature Representation for Automatic Gender Identification from Speech
    Sarah Ita Levitan, Taniya Mishra and Srinivas Bangalore
    10th Annual Machine Learning Symposium, 2016

  • Entrainment in Supreme Court Oral Arguments
    Sarah Ita Levitan, Rivka Levitan and Julia Hirschberg
    Grace Hopper Conference 2012