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Regular version of the site

'Students at HSE Have a Good Sense of Linguistic Diversity'

Yale postdoc Kevin Tang recently gave a talk at HSE on his research in experimental phonology. We talked to Kevin about his conversion from an engineer to a linguist and asked him how he liked the feedback he received from HSE students.

— I know that before becoming a linguist you studied engineering in Cambridge and actually got a degree in engineering.  How did you switch to studying language after that?

— During the engineering course I took lessons in Greek dancing. And the tutor who taught the Greek dancing was a PhD in phonetics. This is how I came across phonetics…

So it was pure chance.

Yes, pure chance. I googled his name, I ‘stalked’ him a bit, read some of his papers. And I thought ‘oh, this thing is surprisingly scientific’! Coming as an engineer, I never even heard of phonetics. It is not a common subject in the UK. People don’t know what linguistics is, if you asked, they’d say it is about learning languages.

— Same in Russia, actually. So, what happened next?

— Reading these papers sparked my initial interest. During my degree, just as a hobby I’d go to the library, take out books on linguistics and study them myself. And by the end of my engineering degree I thought that I actually preferred linguistics to engineering. I still deed a master’s in engineering. And then I was advised to go to either Edinburgh or University College London to do one year ‘conversion master’s course’, which allows you to start from the basics. It’s a one-year course, and they do it only in few universities. That was about 7 years ago.

— So where did you go?

— I decided to go to UCL and did the master’s there. It was to see whether I had enough interest to pursue linguistics as a career. You never know until you do it. Then I met my professor, who would become my linguistics PhD mentor. He told me that he could try to get me onboard with the PhD program, and if I were good enough, the governor would fund me to do the program, and this would indicate that I could extend this as a career. So the initial spark was Greek dancing, then self-study of phonetics, and then UCL.

— So you stayed at UCL to get your PhD?

— Yes. I got my PhD at UCL. And at the moment I am doing a postdoc at Yale.

— Studying Mayan languages?

— I wanted to do something on languages that are not so commonly studied. If you are studying Spanish, well, everybody else is studying Spanish! Studying rare languages is good for career and for your own language development.

I was just going to ask about that. In your lecture you said that we should actually strive for typological diversity of our studies. Could you elaborate a bit? Why is it important not to study one particular language family.

Obviously typology is the strength of Vyshka, of the school of linguistics here. I guess the advantage of it is you wont overfit your linguistic model. Let’s say you’re doing the entire set of theoretical development on a handful of languages… Which is actually what’s happening. In most of the more advanced experimental areas in Western Europe they work on 6 languages maximum. Among them English, Spanish, French, and the most ‘exotic’ one is Japanese. Because they have the money to do the research. What happens next is you build some theoretical model and you think your model can fit the languages. But you are only fitting several languages.

— Most of them being descendants of Latin.

— Exactly. So it’s a typical overfitting issue, just like in machine learning. If you overfit your model, it makes bad predictions when it encounters new data that it hasn’t seen before. So by tackling typologically different languages (and I mean very, very different), and especially understudied languages, you hopefully avoid that. And your model has more explanatory power.

And as we know, understudied languages tend to die pretty quickly. So the more they die out, the fewer data points we have to develop our models. So our model is more likely to overfit, as each language dies out.

— Coming back to your talk, how did you like the feedback from our students? There was a pretty long discussion afterwards, as far as I remember.

— Oh, yes, I was quite impressed by the questions. Students seem to have a good sense of linguistic diversity. Probably, because of their study program and fieldwork. They provided examples from lots of rare languages, understudied languages. Like ‘Oh, in this language there is this special pattern…’. I can’t even remember half of the names of the languages they mentioned. That was quite unusual, because I taught at UCL before and then at Yale, and students there do not tend to use the languages beyond their immediate reach as linguistic examples and counterexamples.  I think it is very healthy, when they try to fit whatever linguistic theory or model you throw at them into language X that they know.

Some of the questions were related more broadly to language processing side.  For instance, the questions that raised the issue of difference in processing function words and actual content words.  The students seem to have been exposed to the processing account of linguistics, as opposed to the theoretical account. I thought the focus was mainly computational or theoretical, but apparently they have experimental stuff as well. 


See also:

‘We Have Not Yet Fully Understood How Languages ​​Work, and We Are Already Losing 90% of Their Diversity’

Why might a grandmother and her grandson not understand each other? Why would linguists want to go to Dagestan? Is it possible to save the less commonly spoken languages of small nations and Russian dialects? Nina Dobrushina, Head of the Linguistic Convergence Laboratory answered these questions in an interview with HSE News Service.

Former HSE Exchange Student Returns as Post-Doc in Linguistics

Originally from Pavia, Italy, Chiara Naccarato developed an interest in Russian early on in her studies, completing her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Russian Language and Linguistics at the University of Milan. She recently joined HSE as a postdoctoral researcher in the Linguistic Convergence Laboratory after completing her PhD studies in Linguistic Sciences at the Universities of Pavia and Bergamo.

Lecture Series Explores Communicative Supertypes, Russian as a Reality-Oriented Language, and Language & Culture

On March 19 and 22, Per Durst-Andersen, professor in the Department of Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School, gave three lectures at the Higher School of Economics on topics that fall under his current research interests, which focus largely on cognitive linguistics; communicative and linguistic typology; language, culture and identity; semiotics; and the philosophy of science. A well-known expert in cross-cultural pragmatics and specialist in business communication, Professor Durst-Andersen delivered the lectures as part of the ‘Language in the Universe of Culture: Russian Communicative Style’ course.

Francis Tyers – Drawn by Russia’s Linguistic Diversity

One of HSE’s newest faculty members is Francis Tyers, who will join the School of Linguistics on August 28 as an Assistant Professor. A native of Normanton on Soar, a small village in the south of Nottinghamshire in England, he joins HSE following a postdoctoral fellowship at UiT Norgga árktalaš universitehta in Tromsø in the north of Norway, where he worked on language technology for Russian and the Sámi languages. Prior to that, he completed PhD studies in the Department of Languages and Information Systems at the Universitat d'Alacant in Spain.

'HSE Students Are not Content with Knowing Things — They Immediately Want to Solve Linguistic Problems'

Guglielmo Cinque is a professor of linguistics at the University of Venice and one of the most well-known European generativists. Recently he paid a week-long visit the HSE School of linguistics, and now shares his impressions of our students and staff, as well as of this year's weather in Moscow.

HSE Student Elizaveta Kuzmenko Receives Google's Women Techmakers Scholarship

Google announced the recepients of its several scholarship programs, including the Women Techmakers Scholarship (formerly the Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship). Among this year's winners Elizaveta Kuzmenko, 1st year student on the Computational Linguistics MA programme at the HSE School of linguistics. 

School of Linguistics Launches an Online Course on Typology

The aim of the course is to obtain the idea of the lexicon as a complex system and to get the methodology of the typological approach to the lexicon cross-linguistically, as well as to learn about the general mechanisms of semantic shift and their typological relevance.

'I Am Happy the Conference on Caucasian Languages Finally Took Place in Moscow'

At the end of November, HSE School of Linguistics hosted the Uslar Conference — an international event for scholars studying the Caucasian languages. Participants and organizers have shared their impressions with HSE News.

'HSE Linguistics Students Have Really Good Methodological Background'

Professor Geeraerts visited HSE School of Linguistics in November to deliver a course on cognitive sociolinguistics for students of Bachelor's programme in Fundamental and Computational Linguistics and Master’s programme in Linguistic Theory and Language Description and hold individual consultations. The visit was initiated by Nina Dobrushina (School of Linguistics). Prof Geeraets has also been long acquainted with Ekaterina Rakhilina, the Head of the School of Linguistics.

‘Our Students Were Able to See that HSE is a Real Research University’

Tilmann Reuther, Professor at the University of Klagenfurt, and his colleague Joulia Köstenbaumer talk to the HSE News Service about their experience of cooperation with the School of Linguistics and internships in Austria.