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┬áto 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.

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