Category Archives: Foreign Correspondence

For blogs and updates from langsoccers abroad.

Half Time

Four months at the other end of the world. I must say, I still haven’t seen a lot of the country (been to Rangitoto, Coromandel Peninsula including Hot Water Beach, and the West Coast including Whale Bay), pretty much Auckland-bound during term, but well, uni is part of the deal and I’m looking forward to three and a half months of holidays!

It took me a while to get used to Auckland  – never had I lived in such a big city before. It’s hillier than Edinburgh, and can’t compete with Edinburgh’s unique flair and atmosphere. The weather is finally getting warmer and sunnier, I already had my first sunburn :/ and it’s not even summer yet!

This semester I did Advanced Phonology, Historical Linguistics and two Psych papers (Clinical Psychology and Research Methods). We had heaps of assignments during the semester and one exam per course at the end (I had my last one the day before yesterday)! Besides the classroom, I founded a linguistics society (LLS, the first linguistics society at any Kiwi university! –websitefb) and so far we’ve had Jason Brown and Quentin Atkinson give talks, and are looking forward to our first talk by Miriam Meyerhoff next semester in March.

Contrary to what I usually like to do – plan everything way in advance, I didn’t plan my summer holidays in that much detail. I’ve dreamt of this for quite a while, to just go out there and live kind of à la Into The Wild, which is not really realisable in most parts of Europe but more so in NZ with all its uninhabited, untouched places. I’ve got a sleeping bag, a tent, and I’m preparing a bag full of food and water plus some pieces of clothing. In about two weeks my adventure will begin; first I’m going up the Northland, spending NYE with friends on ‘the Island’, then down to the South Island to be back in Auckland at the end of February. I’ll mainly hike and possibly hitch-hike now and then. I’m not a big fan of spending money if it’s not necessary (i.e. public transport), and while it would be quite convenient, a car is out of the question too (not only that I wouldn’t have the money for petrol and over-expensive parking, but I don’t even have a driver’s licence ;P). I’m looking forward to this experience, being free, unbound, on an adventurous journey to the unknown. Yet, I have to admit, I’m somewhat scared too. A girl, alone (couldn’t find anyone to tag along, most of my friends are Kiwis who have/want to work during the break), into the wild. Tbc how that goes…

To lift up your mood in order to not leave you with worrying thoughts about my upcoming wellbeing, here a list of some NZ peculiarities I’ve come across:

  • Sometimes when I roam around I’m surprised as to how much NZ/Auckland resembles any other ‘1st world’ country/city in Europe, advanced technology and everything you know, despite this being at the other end of the world! They even have flapjacks here (but they call them ‘bumper bars’)…
  • Maybe that’s the case in other big cities too, I don’t know, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it: the street lights at main crossings in town have a countdown, showing the time left until the colour changes to red.
  • I feel like people here are shorter. Hobbit culture maybe?
  • There are water fountains all over town – pretty sweet!
  • Alcohol is very expensive! (well, as almost everything here 😉 )
  • Eating culture. Hm. There are lots of Asians here so they definitely influence kiwi eating habits; every second shop is a Sushi place. Btw, to make the distinction between the three meanings of ‘kiwi’ a little more clear, ‘kiwi’ refers to New Zealanders or the kiwi bird, and kiwifruit to kiwifruits.
  • There are penalties for everything! If you want to get special circumstances, you have to pay. If your phone rings during an exam, you have to pay. I’d suppose the list to continue.
  • The trees here are amazing! Gigantic, really absolutely massive!
  • Birds.
  • They keep reminding me of Snow White. There are so many, they come so close,   think they’d even eat out of your hands  I actually tried that yesterday but it didn’t work…).
    They’re really cute! Well, people who’re used to them find them annoying. They’re even in our uni buildings!
  • Finally, if someone says ‘sweet as’  common kiwi expression) to you, it does not refer to your ass being sweet 😉

Many greetings from sunny Auckland, already wishing you a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year 2013!

Few consonants and mixed up vowels

Kia ora!

On one of our first days here at the University of Auckland (NZ) we had a Maori welcome: a haka (war dance) and a Maori greeting us in Maori. It more or less sounded like “hakamuto…”, a string of just a few sounds. Indeed, Maori, an Eastern Polynesian language, has only 10 consonants: h, k, m, n, p, r (rolled), t, w, ng (velar nasal), wh (pronounced as f), and 5 vowels (vowel length is phonemic): a, e, i, o. u.

At the end of the 19th century, Maori became a minority language. Fewer people spoke and learnt to speak the language. Only at the end of the 20th century, the dangers of the language loss were recognised and recovery programmes were initiated, and Maori became New Zealand’s second official language in 1987. After a brief revival, however, the language has seen another decline in speakers – only about 9% of the Maori population is fluent in the language (about 4% of the population).

Maori words have their place within Kiwi-English. Many place names have not been translated into English and tell of the landscape’s properties, for example ‘Aotearoa’ means ‘cloud white long’ (land of the long white cloud, the Maori name for New Zealand). More examples can be found here.

Kiwi-English is similar to Australian English. What I notice most is the shift from ‘e’ to ‘i’. Further differences are that the short ‘i’ has centralised towards schwa, and the short ‘a’ sound has moved towards the short ‘e’. I was a bit scared I wouldn’t understand a thing, but I haven’t had any troubles yet.

So much for the linguistic side of down down under. I’ve been here for a week now, lectures start tomorrow, so there’ll be more to tell soon.

Foreign Correspondent – Tromsø, Norge

So here I am, starting to finish up my erasmus year in what is now sunny Tromsø, and I should write a short (ish) summary of what has happened to me while I have been here.

 

I think the first place to start, and the thing that everyone asks me, is about the sun/dark/snow. When I first arrived way back at the beginning of August, it was constantly light. I had missed the midnight sun by around two weeks, so the sun did dip below the mountains, but whether or not it made it to the horizon is anyone’s guess. It seemed like it didn’t, and I know myself and some other students who were not prepared all woke up at 4am on our first day thinking we’d missed out alarms and we weren’t there at 8am for the beginning of introductory week (more about that below). After around two weeks, everything settled down and daylight became a bit more normal. Around that time, it wasn’t so different from home, except that I had to wear a coat. After daylight savings time/winter time/whatever you want to call it, things got dark. Very dark, very fast. The mornings were a little lighter, but the evenings were dark, and everyday we lost around 10 minutes of light. That doesn’t seem like much, but every week you lose just over an hour, and that goes fast. Then the university started up the daylight lamps which I used a few times, but they made me feel a little strange – you feel like you should be hot, because you are sat in front of something that is like the sun, but you aren’t. Some of my friends couldn’t go because the lamps gave them migraines, or their bodies didn’t like being subjected to very strong sunlight and then having to go back out into the dark. On one memorable occasion, I had gone to work, and when I finished work and took the bus to university at 9:50am, it was still dark. There wasn’t even a bit of twilight. That’s odd.

 

When the dark came, the snow came. At first the snow came a bit, then went, then came back, then went again. In January/February time, it came, and it came to stay. It was in March or April when over a metre fell in one day, a Tromsø record. When it’s dark, it’s much nicer with snow, because it seems a little lighter. Everything you can see is white. If there isn’t much wind, even the trees are white, and covered in snow, like the clips they show you in tv shows like Frozen Planet (which was my recent top viewing). And then the sun starts to rise again and the sky is just beautiful colours and you wake up a bit more, as if you are coming out of a three month hibernation.

 

But, then you get to now, and it’s light all the time, and in a few weeks the sun won’t even set – it’ll just go in a big loop around the sky. By the end of May all the snow should’ve disappeared, and we’ll all be able to walk everywhere again, rather than only on defined paths because you could be like me, and try some ‘cross-country walking’ and sink into snow so much that someone has to come and pull you out. Hibernation is now the last thing on anyone’s mind – when it’s light after midnight you have no sense of when to eat, when to get ready for bed, or when you should be doing different things. Last night I slept with my eye mask for the first time because it was just so bright. Many friends have taped bin liners to their windows for the night-time because it is so light in their bedrooms. However, I’m not complaining – the dark was interesting, and I’m glad I was here to see it, but the midnight sun is what I really want to see. I want to experience less sleep because there is constant light. It’s seems awesome so far, but I’m sure in a month I’ll be wishing there was a little bit of darkness.

 

Apart from the weather, there is a lot going on here. As a student, you are taken care of so well by the university that I never want to leave! The introductory week when first arriving was the most valuable thing I did – if you have the choice to do an introductory programme at any university you go to I would recommend it. It’s where I met a lot of my friends, was told a lot about Norway and got to experience the uni for a week before all the home students showed up. UiT pile you with information, and you know you won’t remember all of it, but luckily they put it all online so you can look later. That’s how I found out about the doctor, getting a tax card, getting a bank account, and all those other things that are quite important but when you’re first here you just want to meet people. The final day of our week was a trip to a beach called Grotfjørd where it was about 20 degrees, which is tropical for the Arctic Circle. We were able to hike or fish, and then have barbecues on the beach. Definitely the highlight of the week

 

And there is loads to do here. I have been like a real tourist and at the beginning I did a lot of hiking. Then the snow came and I went dog-sledding. When the midnight sun is properly here, it’ll be time for midnight sun kayaking. I’ve been to Oslo, I’ve travelled from Oslo to Tromsø by train and boat, which took 48 hours and I didn’t see as much as I would like because it was dark, but it was incredible. Watching the Northern Lights off the back of the Hurtigruten was something I’ll never forget. And I mustn’t forget seeing the Northern Lights when just out and about. I have been lucky and this year has been one for major solar activity which means our sky has been lit up. I have seen the Aurora like you only see in pictures, and have even chosen not to go outside and see it because ‘I saw it last night and I’ll see it again tomorrow’. It puts things in perspective but makes you see how you can acclimatise to something new. Speaking of which, I’ve also acclimatised to the temperature. I’m usually a hater of the cold, so coming to the most northerly university in the world might’ve been a bit stupid, but lo and behold, I am used to it. If it is above 0 now it is warm. At one point, -2 degrees celsius wasn’t cold anymore, merely ‘a bit nippy’. 5 degrees has me going out without a coat, and -23 wasn’t enough to put me off going to watch the reindeer race in town.

 

Of course, it isn’t all fun and games when here: I did come to study too. Norway isn’t the place to go if you just want to drink your erasmus year away because it costs so much (though many of my friends do) and being in a uni that is one of the top for theoretical linguistics right now is exciting. I’ve been able to meet some interesting people, and even a few famous linguists, like Michal Starke and W. Tecumseh Fitch. It’s the home of Nanosyntax, and if you like syntax and really like features, then this might be the place to come. And the courses I take are excellent. I started last semester with MA level Phonology 1 and Syntax 1, and introductory Language Diversity and Typology. Having never taken MA courses before, I felt something introductory would be my best bet to balance my workload, but I definitely had more work for that course than for Phonology and Syntax! All the courses had final papers, so no exams, and yes, although 7000 words per paper is a lot, and it has to be individual research, the teachers here are so supportive and helpful that it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. In Phonology we looked at autosegmental phonology, and then moved onto Optimality Theory where we stayed, and we’re still there now. But anyone who has studied OT has to admit that it’s fascinating, and working out how to use OT for syllabic structure, tones, prosody, language acquisition, morphology and syntax is pretty cool. In Syntax we started from the bottom – back to second year syntax – and we worked out our own analysis and had to analyse structures according to what we thought.

This semester I couldn’t give up Phonology and Syntax, so I took Phonology 2 and Syntax 2. When you become great friends with your classmates, you don’t want to leave them at all. I’m also taking FLA (BA level) and SLA (MA level, taught by Edinburgh’s Antonella Sorace), which has been great fun. Taking 4 courses means I have no time to think, but I did enough thinking and drinking last semester, and this semester I wanted to take stuff I like (I also had to take four because of the course choices back home). Phonology 2 is an extension of Phonology 1, and so is Syntax 2, but now in Syntax we look at other stuff – nanosyntax, the syntax-semantics interface, distributed morphology and the like. The term papers this semester are a bit harder, because I’ve done one semester and I should know what I’m on about. SLA was an intensive course which means that I’ve already done the work, but FLA has an exam, and this will be my first exam here. At Tromsø, they are FOUR HOURS LONG. Apparently that is short, and they could be six hours, but why you would ever spend that long in an exam is completely beyond me. I think I’ll die of boredom before the end, but it will be the only exam I have taken here, so that’s not so bad.

 

Apart from that, life isn’t so different to home. When you settle somewhere, and you have to live, it’s not like you are permanently on holiday – I have bills to pay, food to buy, a job to work and things to study. But coming to Norway has been an amazing experience, I’ve made some fantastic friends, I’ve learnt (sort of) a new language (I think owning up to hating to learn new languages might make me hated by the linguistic community, but I really don’t enjoy it so much), and been surrounded by loads of languages so I’m taking on some more, and I’ve worked out what I want to do in the future, where I want to go, and how I want to get there. Norway has been an excellent experience (and excellent for my bank account with Norwegian wages too!), so to sum up my year abroad, I can only tell people they should do one too, because mine is so great!

 

And sorry this isn’t so short.

 

Foreign Correspondence: Doing a Computational Linguistics Masters in Germany

I am currently sitting in a conference in Germany, listening to my project leader ramble on about the benefits of short coding courses for students. At least, I hope that is what she is talking about. I don’t know German. How did I get here? I’m not sure either. But, in an attempt to help you understand what it means to do a masters in Computational Linguistics, I’ll try and explain.

Getting into Linguistics

I graduated from the University of Edinburgh last year. I had gone there for my entire undergraduate, but Linguistics was only the center of that for two years. It’s worth talking about the longer view if you want to understand that. So, the long view: around 3.5 billion years ago, life began. Shorter view: I read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was 4, and knew that I wanted to read books for the rest of my life. When I learned one can write them, I wanted to be an English professor. Skip forward through high school, and I’m at Edinburgh doing an undergraduate degree in English and Classical Literature.

Around a week in I realise I don’t need to be in Classical Literature – after 5 years of Latin in high school, I didn’t need to read the Aeneid in translation. Not that I was ever very good at Latin, but I stuck with it. So, I switch courses for the first time. I do Greek and English Literature. After a semester, I grow increasingly tired of the utter powerlessness of English Literature to transform texts. I didn’t feel like I was opening my eyes reading a text, and I didn’t walk away with a better life after applying a postmodern, Barthian view to Confessions of a Justified Sinner. So, I dropped English. This sort of concern always lingered though – I feel that what you’re studying, which is essentially what you’re living, should stand up well to the question ‘How does this help anyone?’ We’ll get to how Linguistics answers this in a bit.

And this is where Linguistics begins. I realise I kind of like it. I always liked Latin, and Greek, and English – not for themselves, but because they language. If you’re reading this blog, you don’t really need to hear a long praise of Linguistics, you know what I’m talking about. So, I switched to Greek and Linguistics. No one was surprised a year later when I realised I’d rather study Language than language, and dropped Greek. So, for my honours years, I was 100% Linguistics.

Linguistics to Computational Linguistics

Of course, that doesn’t mean I studied very hard. I goofed around a lot. I learned Na’vi. I did a lot of society stuff, and tended to spend a lot of nights in the Auld Hoose and Opium. There was one course that got my attention, though – Simulating Language. Here was a course that had an answer to my questions about ‘Why would anyone really care about pronoun usage in Othello?’ The baseless theorizing of English literature was discarded in favor of experimental modelling – actually trying to get to the bottom of how language might have evolved. And, what’s best, it involved Python. I was a bit scared at first, but after I had this weird idea of coding glossolalia and seeing if language might have evolved from drunk shaman rambling around the fire in the open savanna, I ended up learning it myself and trying to code in it. This later turned into my thesis – actually, that focused on word segmentation in nine month old children, but the code is surprisingly similar.

If any of you have ever coded, you might know what I mean. If you haven’t – imagine that first time you switched to GMail. Or imagine when you first drove a car. Or imagine learning to walk – you take this obscure, impossible system, and make it work. And suddenly, things are doing what you want them to. It’s the ultimate power rush. I liked that. I also liked that you could make money (well, live) doing this sort of stuff. And I could potentially make a career out of it. Finally, I also like the fact that the question – who does this help? – could be answered. For instance, some of my work on Na’vi involved coding. And although it was a hobby, and a fake language, and people don’t tend to view those things seriously – I helped people learn a language, often the first foreign language they had learned. I helped people connect to speakers of other languages who they couldn’t normally talk to. For some, I helped forge a sense of identity and community. I slept pretty well on nights when I recognised that it wasn’t just a silly pursuit, but helping people have fulfilling hobbies. There are better examples I could cite, but this one should work.

So, I figured I’d keep running with it. I knew I wanted to stay in academia – I’d wanted to be a professor since I was 6 – so I started applying for Masters and PhDs. Somewhere along the way, I applied to the Erasmus Mundus for Language and Communication Technology. It’s a double masters, at two universities, and it had a nice stipend, too. Most of the PhDs didn’t work out – although now I know a lot more, and I don’t think that’ll happen again – but I did get into this program. So, pretty soon, I graduated, and headed to the continent.

Courses in Germany

So that’s where I’ve been this past year: in Germany. I don’t know German. But I have learned a lot more. Here’s an example of some of my courses:

  • Pattern and Speech Recognition: Here, I learned a lot of math. I was horrified at first, and left the classroom feeling like I had just gotten whiplash from a roller coaster. But you get better, calculus isn’t so bad, and I even had fun coding the weekly examples when I managed to do them. I know a lot more about classification now. If you ever wanted to pick things out of noisy data – be it sound, or whatever – this is a cool thing to learn.
  • Computational Linguistics for Low Resource Languages: This is the coolest course I have ever taken. Reading lots of papers about how to help languages that don’t have much technology. For instance, after the Haitian earthquake, there was a lot of time that went into providing help in Creole. People could text in to an international aid hot line, in their native language, and the message would get translated and sent to aid workers who could help out. Hundreds of lives were saved because of this. That’s pretty awesome.
  • Statistics in Linguistics: If you’re ever fought with SPSS or not understood a paper because it used a lot of stats, it turns out that that sort of thing is avoidable. There’s nothing quite so cool as seeing results for an experiment you’ve run in R, the prettiest graphing program ever, and being able to read about stats is something that is worth it.

Obviously, I’m not covering a lot of things about the courses. Suffice to say, I’m learning stuff that I think is pretty cool. I have other courses, too, and a job building a repository, and I even managed to think of, write, and publish a paper in a conference with one of my professors here.

Life here

So, what does my average day look like? Well, I’d like to say I sleep in, have waffles, go to class for a bit, have an hour of homework, and then go hang out with friends. That is what a normal person would do, and some of my friends do that. I think that this is possible, and that it is possible to balance your life and work, to make connections easily and sail through a Masters program. That’s not why I came here though – I took this program because I wanted to learn how to code, I wanted to practice, and I wanted to have more time to work on my activities.

So, what I end up doing is waking up, leaning over, and turning on my computer. I then generally work, or work-avoiding-work, for the rest of the day. There’s been a lot of 15 hour workdays here. I somehow manage to keep a girlfriend and to put in a lot of free time slack-lining and walking, but there’s always this pressure at the back of my head to work more. That pressure is so omnipresent I developed a time tracker and task manager to outsource it so I didn’t have to think about it. And that’s not the only downside – I’ve got tendinitis now, or something like it, from being on the computer too much. On top of that, I’ve had a lot of late nights trying to wrap my head around things I hadn’t even known could exist. Graduate school is not for the slacker.

On the other hand, that’s what I chose, and, for me, those are upsides. I get to go to conferences – I’ve been to Bristol, Japan, New Mexico, Mainz, etc. this year. I’m going to the Netherlands, France, Bristol again (for ULAB), and Prague twice this summer. I publish a lot, and that makes me feel good – partly because I like working on papers. I get to do a lot of fun projects for class – right now, I’m working on a project making a corpus out of a social network, and identifying endangered languages in multilingual texts. I get to work with cool people – everyone here is from a different country, and I’ve really been overdosed with French and German since I came here (if I had more time, I would know them now.) What’s more, I sleep well when I do sleep.

There are better blogs out there about what it is like being in graduate school. For me, it’s long hours, learning, and a sense of fulfillment. But I wrote this mainly to tell you that it is a pretty cool thing to do, a masters degree in computational linguistics. I suggest it, and I’m always online if you want to hear more.

Time flies and soon I’ll fly away…

Since I am now(-ish) one of LangSoc’s Foreign Correspondents and I just booked my flight, I thought I could just go ahead and write my first FC blog post. I will try and post something now and then during my year abroad, to introduce you to (Linguistics at) another institution and of course, also a little more to the country. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions!

For those of you who don’t know it yet; I’m Gina, in my second year at Edinburgh studying Linguistics and Psychology, and I am going on exchange to the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

The application process started quite a long time ago, in November, and just before Christmas I received an email telling me that I had been offered a place at the University of Auckland. I had to complete an online application, upload some documents and send them a pile of hard copies (well, this is still in progress and it’s not me but the International Exchange Officer doing it (hopefully)). I booked my flight yesterday (one-way 540 Pounds), can apply for accommodation in April and as soon as I get a definite offer from Auckland I will get my head around filling in the 16-pages VISA form. Hurray.

Not only are the seasons different in New Zealand, but also the structure of the academic year. Thus I’ll start semester 2 in July, my summer holidays are from December till the end of February, and then semester 1 begins. I haven’t decided on my courses yet, though I’m quite interested in second language learning and it seems like at least 80% of the professors at Auckland do related research. Not being much of a sociolinguist, I will still definitely sneak in some lecture by Miriam Meyerhoff 😉

I’m really looking forward to this adventure, an opportunity to broaden my horizon, see more of the world, and discover another culture which will enrich me in and beyond my studies.