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Python, Non-Indo-European Languages and Sociolinguistics: What You can Learn at the New HSE’s Master’s Programme

School of Linguistics’ expedition to Dagestan

This year HSE has launched a new English-taught MA programme ‘Linguistic Theory and Language Description’, which has evolved from a specialization on the Computer Linguistics programme. Michael Daniel, one of the programme’s Academic Supervisors, told the HSE news service about the multilingual people who will study here, the expeditions the students will go on, and other features of the programme.

 

Michael Daniel

How the idea originated

After we saw the success of the undergraduate programme ‘Fundamental and Computational Linguistics’, it became clear that HSE needs an MA programme in theoretical linguistics. We currently have a lot of really talented students in our undergraduate programme, and some of them will choose to focus on fundamental, non-applied research, even though they initially started the programme to study computational linguistics.

We launched the new programme, first of all, to give our students a platform to continue their studies and do research. But last year we enrolled students from a non-theoretical background, and some of them hadn’t even graduated in this field. But there are no regrets. As far as I can see, they like studying here.

This is a very small field, and titans compete on it

Today, people who are on very different educational trajectories approach me to discuss the possibility of enrolling in the programme. I always start by trying to understand whether they really know what the programme is about, and explain to them what it would involve. And I often see that they are really interested in theory; I get a real sense of how motivated they are.

English as the main teaching, learning language

This is a key approach used by HSE to internationalize studies. MA students are quite capable of participating in the academic process in English, so why not try to make it a standard feature of courses offered? A significant proportion of their future academic research will, in any case, be undertaken in English.

But on this programme, teaching in English is also an opportunity to attract people who speak a number of different languages. Our first enrolment will include Arabic and Mongolian speakers, and a native speaker of Twi, who also speaks Akan. I believe this is a great occasion to launch a research project as part of our MA programme on the Kwa languages (a group of languages in the Niger-Congo family). I think it is vital that an MA programme in theoretical linguistics includes languages that have fundamentally different structures, non-Indo-European languages, be it as part of expeditions, research projects, or among fellow MA students.

What the students will learn

There are only a few MA programmes in linguistic theory on offer in Russia, but they are all very strong. This is a very small field, and titans compete on it. We’ve included several features in our programme that distinguish it from similar alternatives. I’ll mention only what I myself believe to be very important – we have an interdisciplinary cycle including experimental linguistics (psycholinguisitcs, neurolinguistics, and instrumental phonetics), and anthropological linguistics. Not all linguistics programmes offer the former feature, and, as far as I know, none offers the latter.

We also offer linguistics students a very serious and substantial statistical methods course. This is not a course of abstract mathematical statistics, but a practical course in methods of analysis of popular types of language data. This covers R language, including methods of data visualization (which are incredibly varied and flexible in R), as well as Python – a simple and quite productive language focused on text data.

One of the last year’s MA students went with us to Dagestan; two MA students are now on an expedition about the Mari language, and two more went on an expedition to Guatemala

I think it is very important that courses in sociolinguistics have been added to the programme. Sociolinguistics is relatively unpopular in Russia, but it is very popular in the West as a view of language as an object of research. In a sense, linguistics at HSE started from sociolinguistics. Before the School of Linguistics and our undergraduate programme existed, the Faculty of Sociology already taught a course in sociolinguistics.

So, if a leader in linguistic education is to pay a lot of attention to sociolinguistics, it should surely be HSE, simply according to the logics of the university’s development. In this sense, our only real competitor is the programme offered by the European University in St. Petersburg, but theirs is fully sociolinguistic, which is also not our goal.

From next year, the programme is launching mini courses in the grammar of languages with various structures, primarily non-Indo-European. We are planning to invite experts in various languages who will give general lectures in sociolinguistics and the grammar of the languages in which they specialize, such as Agul, Aliutor, or Aleut. This will expand the students’ understanding of different language types.

This programme includes a major focus on statistical approaches to linguistic data analysis (in R language) and a related course in programing, as well as formal and experimental linguistics. The latter is taught in partnership with a very active and successful HSE department: the Neurolinguistics Laboratory. I find the laboratory’s research in eye tracking especially interesting. I asked them to include this area of research in the experimental linguistics course. In addition, the course’s core includes typology, sociolinguistics, and Russian studies, and a student can choose any two out of these three blocs in each year of study.

Programme teachers

Here you can find list of some of the programme’s staff lecturers.

Invited lecturers from the School of Linguistics give open courses in various problems of linguistic theory. A lot of lecturers have already visited HSE, including some of the world’s most renowned linguists. In fall, courses by three authoritative linguists will take place at HSE; Eric Reuland, a syntactician from the Utrecht Institute of Linguistics, Johan van der Auwera, a typologist from the University of Antwerp, and Dirk Geeraerts, a sociolinguist from the University of Leuven.

Why do we need to study this? The answer is because it is thrilling

Research

The programme pays a lot of attention on the students’ research activities, which are preferably (but not obligatorily) team-based. Research seminars are included in the academic schedule. Last year, several projects were launched. The new students can join them or start their own ones. And in this sense, the programme has one advantage, which hasn’t been fully exploited in the projects started. We have a sister programme, Computational Linguistics, and I believe there is excellent potential for cooperation, such as joint projects including both students of theory and those with sound programing skills.

School of Linguistics’ expedition to Dagestan

Expeditions and fieldwork

Students have to pass a strict selection process to take part in an expedition. One of the last year’s MA students went with us to Dagestan; two MA students are now on an expedition about the Mari language, and two more went on an expedition to Guatemala organized by Maryland University, with which the School of Linguistics is developing a partnership today.

The programme’s target audience

The programme is aimed at people who are interested in the problems of fundamental research. I find the easiest way to explain this is by using my own research projects as an example.

My colleagues and I focus heavily on the language diversity of Dagestan. I’ve just returned from an expedition to the Rutul district of the Dagestan Republic, which is home to representatives of six ethnic groups – Rutuls, Tsakhurs, Lezgins, Azerbaijanis, Laks, and Avars. These ethnic groups speak six various languages that are not mutually understandable (with the possible exception of some dialects of the Tsakhur and Rutul languages).

The Rutuls, the Tsakhurs, and the Lezgins belong to one branch of the Nakh-Dagestani family, the Laks belong to another branch, and the Avars to the third. The Azerbaijani language is not at all related to those others. Dialects can differ greatly even within one ethnic group. The fundamental question is how do such different languages interact on this very small space? How do the models of multilingualism work here (who communicates with whom in what language and how did they used to do it)? Are there any traces of interaction between the languages in their phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary? Why do we need to study this? The answer is because it is thrilling, and I can’t help but add – also because of this.

We have another project – studying one of the Northern dialects in the Ustja district of the Arkhangelsk Oblast. We are looking at the dynamics of disappearing dialect features by comparing the language behavior of people of different ages. But it’s also interesting simply to talk to those people.

I have given only two examples of fundamental research projects, to which I’m personally related. But the School of Linguistics has a host of projects, and a talented and interested MA student can join any of them.

International partnership and internships

We organize trips to international universities for MA students from the School of Linguistics. Last year, two students went to the University of Tromsø (Norway) – this is the world’s most Northern university, and the School of Linguistics has long and closely cooperated with it. In fall, one of the MA students is going to the University of Pavia (Italy). We are constantly working to expand the range of our European partners under the Erasmus project. I want to mention one of the promising universities in this area - one of Europe’s leading universities: Stockholm University. It has a wonderful MA programme in linguistic theory, which attracts the leading linguists to teaching. In addition, we’ve started negotiations with the University of Jerusalem, which has very strong researchers, typologists and formal linguists, who are interested in an exchange with HSE. I hope that both of these exchanges will be possible next year.

See also:

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