Natural Language Processing (NLP) software is all the rage these days. From chatbots to customer self-service to intelligent search, today’s technologies are powered by software that understands the meaning of language.
But natural language technology doesn’t just appear out of thin air. In addition to the developers who actually write the code to make it work, professional linguists inform the myriad rules and nuances that help the software understand language. It’s a pretty cool job, but is it one you could possibly want?
Inbenta is fortunate to have an entire team of world-class computational linguists spread over our global offices. They’re the engine that drives our artificial intelligence and machine learning and a lot of the brainpower behind our patented technologies. We wanted to enter the mind of a linguist and figure out just what makes them tick, what makes a good linguist, and how they knew they were on the right career path. Here’s what they had to say:
“What key personality traits make a great linguist?”
Curiosity! Always question why language is so weird and look for answers beyond “because that’s how language works!” You also have to have a taste for description instead of prescription…don’t trust your dictionaries too much. If people talk in a certain way that’s considered wrong, it is still language and should be taken into account. When dealing with oral speech (or internet writing, which frequently imitates speech), dictionaries are wrong way too often. You should also have a penchant for scientific approaches. Learn about methods of evaluation, always keep in touch with scientists and stay up to date about research, new tools, or new businesses.
Not being a Scorpio is one good trait for linguists. Jokes aside, linguists must have the capacity to work in a team, be detail-oriented, and have an analytic mind. Of course, having a strong command of the language(s) you work with, and knowing your limitations in the less familiar languages are also important pieces to a long and successful career.
You have to love problem-solving. Challenges should be seen as fun puzzles and not cause (too much) stress. Being able to think creatively will also be really helpful because, frankly, language is weird and doesn’t always fit neatly within a little box. If you’re a good linguist, you know all the grammar rules, but poor grammar doesn’t upset you (you can’t be a linguist and the grammar police). And, of course, you must be curious and have a sincere desire to learn–there’s SO much to learn!
Having a love of languages is obviously a trait of any successful linguist. But you also need to have great attention to detail, considering how complex languages can be. Of course, every language has its nuances–even your native tongue–so having a real passion for learning is essential.
Some word association for linguists: incisive, scrupulous, self-sufficient, patient, organized, dutiful, efficient.
“How/when did you first realize you wanted to do it as a career?”
I’ve always wanted to work with language. I studied 4 languages in high school. My dream was to speak every living language! I ultimately decided to be an interpreter. The thing is, as an interpreter, you work mostly in tourism and recite the same speech and most of the time you always speak the same language. I figured out a way to combine the linguistics courses I loved at university with the coding skills I developed in my computer sciences courses. Being a computational linguist lets me pursue learning about how language works and how to get machines to understand it too. Still no regrets so far!
I don’t really know when the realization hit me. I originally studied to be an ESL teacher, but I’ve always really liked language and found it fascinating. I’ve always been particularly interested in AI but never really considered it as a career because I wasn’t interested in computer science. So, being able to use my linguistic knowledge to help develop tools that help computers understand human language is kind of a win-win.
In a Latin class my freshman year of college, I realized how excited I got about learning grammar and etymology. I went home and did research and found out people studied these things for a living!
Back in college, I took the course called “Computational Models of Cognition.” The course provides students in cognitive science and computer science with the skills to develop computational models of human cognition, and how to bring computers close to human performance. One of the chapters was all about the computational aspects of the human language faculty and I have learned many different ways in which researchers have attempted to formalize speech or/and text processing systems. The more I learned, the more I was fascinated by how much we can apply this technology in everyday life.
For a lot of people, a career in linguistics never even appears on the radar. But if you’ve always seemed to have a knack for language and saw yourself in the words of our linguists, you might in fact have what it takes to be a linguist.