What is a Computational Linguist?

Computational LinguistThe voice you hear when you receive an automated phone call is very likely the result of the work of a computational linguist. The call is annoying, but the realization that a computer has spoken to you is worth exploring. Computational linguistics deals with that exploration. From the voice of the computer in “2001, A Space Odyssey” to the automated weather and traffic notifications many people get on their mobile phones, we see the science everywhere.

What is Computational Linguistics?

It is a discipline that draws from computer sciences, psychology and linguistics and seeks to understand the complexities of human language. It examines what humans have to know to learn language and the meaning of nuance, phrasing and syntax, among other issues, in communication. According to an article in achweb.org, it has been around since 1946. Back then, the world was entering the Cold War period and machine translation of language, mainly directed toward the Russians, was a necessity. The professionals began to assimilate theories about language, but the theories have become so complex in our time that computers must be used to manage them.

What is the Goal of the Science?

According to Saarland University, the goal of computational linguistics is to create software that has knowledge and understanding of human language. There is currently language translation software, but it relies solely on programmed words and meanings and has no way to comprehend things like inflexions and contexts. That is important, because one of the primary aims is to use the spoken word to communicate with computers. The language of computers is mathematics with its algorithms and formulas that are difficult to learn. Since computers respond to that programming, computational mistakes must be in the data input. Speech input would be faster and easier. There is also the idea of improving text-to-speech software. That advance was a boon to blind users. Another problem for computer communication is that we have an exploding World Wide Web with data whizzing in from countries around the globe that communicate in different languages. Translation by the computer would make this data accessible even to people who didn’t speak the language. Could the technology be used for artificial intelligence? Of course, but first the linguists have to teach the computers to understand the “undercurrents” of language, the psychological implications. That is a long way off.

What do Scientists in this Field Do?

These scientists develop models of language and then put them into programmable code, creating theories and exploring them through computation. They perform a sort of “language engineering,” assembling and cataloging the applications, the methods and the tools used to investigate human language. The scientists work in university research centers, in government labs and for private corporations like Microsoft in the race to develop game-changing software, but the majority are employed by the government and the greatest concentration of them is in the Virginia area.

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A career in this area would be ideal for the right person. Because it is interdisciplinary, students should take language and psychology courses as well as computer engineering. The median salary is well above $70,000 so there would be a good return-on-investment for the degree. Computer linguists will play an ever-greater role in our relationship with the machines, and they hold the key that may unlock the door to sentient artificial intelligence.